Joanna Zylinska proposes a “feminist counterapocalypse,” which would resist the anthropocentric, technicist perspectives that shape apocalyptic narratives of climate crisis. Like Anna Tsing’s exploration of collaborative survival, Zylinska’s counterapocalypse is founded on the notion of precarity as a shared condition of life in the postindustrial world. This article focuses on art-science projects by Joaquín Fargas (Argentina) and Paul Rosero Contreras (Ecuador) that imagine environmental futures. In contrasting their projects the author asks how they endorse or subvert the anthropocentrism that often motivates the representation of climate change as reversible (humans save the planet) or, indeed, as irreversible (humans destroy the planet). Drawing on the work of Andreas Weber and several Latin American scholars, including Eduardo Gudynas and Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, the author suggests ways in which biosemiotic and biocentric perspectives may make a valuable contribution to the counterapocalypse Zylinska proposes. The analysis of Rosero’s work in particular opens up ways in which one might consider other paradigms rather than precarity as the basis for a postanthropocentric counterapocalypse, including abundance, reciprocity, collaboration, and coevolution. These are found everywhere in complex ecosystems and relate closely to the principles on which theories and practices of the commons are founded, both in Latin America and beyond.
Artists across the world are finding compelling and affective ways to communicate the existential risks of which we are increasingly being warned by environmental scientists. While artworks that convey the current scale of environmental devastation may raise much-needed public awareness, they may also slide into media clichés of apocalypticism without questioning what ideas about humans, or about the environment, underpin the insistent depiction of climate change as catastrophic, accelerating, and irreversible. Discourses that emphasize the precarity of the biosphere may lead us to assume that its survival is dependent on us, for example, rather than the reverse. Urgent calls to address the crisis may ultimately reassert those humanist values that have led to widespread environmental damage and the exploitation of the natural world. They may do this by casting humans as saviors or (conversely) as doomed to extinction, along with human culture as we know it, or by advocating for ever-greater technological interventions to reverse climate change.
Rather than lamenting the “end of Man” prophesied in apocalyptic discourses of the Anthropocene, Joanna Zylinska wonders if we might welcome it, seeing it as an opportunity to challenge the technicist, humanist, capitalist, and masculinist projects that have impelled us toward social and environmental crisis. Such projects, she proposes, far from being threatened by visions of catastrophe, are often reinforced by them.1 As Zylinska argues, the apocalyptic narrative of the Anthropocene calls for humanity to overcome calamity through ingenuity, bringing forth “a temporarily wounded yet ultimately redeemed Man who can conquer time and space by rising above the geological mess he has created.”2 She proposes instead a “feminist counterapocalypse,” which would resist the “masculinist and technicist solutions” offered to secure the salvation of humanity.3 This counterapocalypse would be founded on the notion of precarity as the shared condition of life in the postindustrial world, a concept Zylinska develops from the work of Anna Tsing.
This essay focuses on art-science projects created by Joaquín Fargas (Argentina) and Paul Rosero Contreras (Ecuador) that explore the possibilities and limits of technological responses to the environmental crisis. In comparing their projects, I will ask to what extent they challenge or complicate the apocalyptic narratives that for Zylinska ultimately shore up “Man’s fictitious authority.”4 I will argue that renouncing commonplace depictions of climate change as catastrophic allows these artists to dislodge the humanist and anthropocentric perspectives that are often embedded in such apocalypticism. The ironic treatment of technological solutions to climate crisis in Fargas’s work subjects solutionist narratives to critique, while leaving intact broader beliefs in human transcendence through technology. Rosero’s emphasis on strategies of cross-species collaboration and adaptation has the effect of returning to the natural world beyond the human the agency and subjectivity that are often stripped from it in the apocalyptic tenor of imagined environmental futures.
Rosero’s approach to ecological crisis counters, in some respects, the centrality accorded to the notion of precarity in the work of Tsing and Zylinska. Both scholars explore precarity as a way of understanding “the condition of our time,” tracing connections between environmental and economic precarity in the context of global capitalism. In my discussion of Rosero’s work, however, I will propose that this notion may have limited value as a basis on which to imagine “the coexistences and collaborations” that might be created in the wake of a crisis generated by the humanist and imperialist logic of capitalism.5 Discourses that emphasize the precarity of the biosphere tend to portray biological life as eked out in invariably harsh and competitive conditions. These visions feed into a Darwinian understanding of nature as a struggle for survival in which species are pitted against one another. This conception has successfully reinforced representations of capitalism as an economic system that is based on the competitive relations inherent in nature. In place of precarity, Rosero’s work draws our attention to the logics of abundance, cooperation, and coevolution that are everywhere in evidence in ecosystems. It also encourages us to abandon those biological metaphors of the “survival of the fittest” that have been used to naturalize capitalism and consider instead whether alternative systems based on forms of cooperation and the commons might indeed be more paradigmatic in the natural world. This approach may more effectively contest the logic of a capitalist system that is closely involved, for both Zylinska and Tsing, with the structural production of precarity.6 Drawing on the work of Andreas Weber, Eduardo Gudynas, and Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, among others, I suggest ways in which biosemiotic approaches, together with the biocentric perspectives and commoning practices theorized by a number of Latin American scholars, may make a valuable contribution to the counterapocalypse Zylinska proposes.
Art and Geodesign for Climate Change
Based in Buenos Aires, Joaquín Fargas has developed a series of art projects that combine elements of digital media, biotechnology, and robotics; some of these examine the potential role of technology in reversing climate change, bringing this topic to the attention of wider audiences through exhibitions and other forms of public engagement and education. His work includes a number of site-specific installations in Antarctica. The poles have become “both the proving ground and the advanced warning system” for scientific research on climate change, acting rather like the “canary in the coal mine” of global warming.7 In recent years, the meteorologists, climatologists, astronomers, and marine biologists who carry out research in Antarctica every year have been joined by a growing number of artists from around the world on residency programs. Latin American artists have been well represented in such schemes, as they were in the first Antarctic Biennale, held in 2017.
Fargas’s contribution to the Biennale was Glaciator, an installation comprising a number of solar-powered robots with rotating “feet” (see fig. 1). As the robots move across the snow, they help to compact and crystallize it, turning it into ice and adding mass to the glacier. Glaciator is thus designed to reverse the ice thaw, which has provided some of the most alarming evidence of global warming and is in turn speeding up the rise in temperatures. Around the same height as a toddler, the robots move with a similar lack of grace: the primitive design of their six-pronged wheels leaves them lurching clumsily over the uneven snow, appearing to stumble at every small dip or mound.8 Watched at length, however, what is most striking is their indomitable progress toward the horizon. Wholly inadequate for the task ahead of them, the robots are nevertheless on a clear and dogged mission.
Fargas had already undertaken work in Antarctica as part of Proyecto Utopía (2011), a collaborative project in which artists from Spain and Argentina developed site-specific interventions on the theme of combating climate change. For the work Don Quijote contra el cambio climático (Don Quixote against Climate Change), Fargas installed three windmills that generated the electricity to operate thermoelectric Peltier cells with a cooling function (see fig. 2). The aim was to demonstrate the possibility of creating ice to replenish the polar icecaps and to slow down the rate of melting. The reference to Don Quixote in the work’s title opens up at least two possible meanings. It may refer to the futile endeavor to combat climate change, in what becomes a quixotic—utopian, romantic, impractical, self-delusional—effort to reverse the effects of global warming. On the other hand, it may refer to Don Quixote’s misidentification of windmills as giants to be slain in a battle: his propensity to imagine adversaries where there are none. If there is a battle here, then technology, Fargas appears to suggest, is not the enemy.
Fargas’s piece is poised between these two possible readings. Set against the vast and indifferent expanses of the Antarctic glacier on which they are erected, the thin struts and short blades of the windmills look deliberately puny. The work seems to register the impracticality of any attempt to preserve glacier ice in rapidly warming global temperatures, mocking the “masculinist-solutionist” approaches Zylinska denounces.9 Although these are not “prototypes” designed with mass production in mind, they do function, drawing attention to the fact that replenishing the world’s melting ice would indeed be a difficult task but not an impossible one. Ambitious proposals for the global management of the polar icecaps through new technologies have started to emerge in earnest. In 2016, a team led by the physicist Steven Desch published a proposal to “refreeze” the Arctic with the aid of ten million wind-powered pumps, which would add seawater to the ice to create a thicker layer, protecting it from temperature increases. They estimate that it would cost about $500 billion each year for the next ten years to deploy such devices over the entire Arctic, a price they consider to be “expensive” but “economically achievable.”10
Desch prefers the term geodesign to geoengineering, recognizing that geoengineering is often used pejoratively by those who argue that altering the world’s climate system is morally irresponsible, as it will disincentivize a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; what is more, the effects of such actions on the climate system as a whole would be unknown.11 There is a clear danger, as Naomi Klein points out, that the need to act quickly in the case of a climate emergency will preclude discussion of the wider ethics and politics of technological solutions of this kind.12 Quite apart from the enormous risks involved in tinkering with a biosphere whose workings we do not yet understand, she claims, looking to geoengineering as a solution simply bolsters “our culture’s most intoxicating narrative: the belief that technology is going to save us from the effects of our actions.”13 The prospect of reversing climate change in this manner perpetuates a belief in human exceptionalism through the technological transcendence of our environment. Fargas’s speculative ice-generating works bolster a similar sense of exceptionalism: indeed, he considers an “espíritu trascendental” (transcending spirit) with respect to nature and the environment to be innate in humanity (pers. comm., April 17, 2019). However, the works themselves introduce a crucial ambivalence. On one hand, they bear witness to the ingenuity of humans and their power to intervene in the most extreme environments on the planet, recovering something of the Romantic vision of the scientist-as-explorer. On the other, the ludic qualities of these works, together with their clunky, do-it-yourself aesthetics, point to the enormity of the task, its quasi-fantastical nature, and the hubris of undertaking it.
Nicola Triscott points out that “an aesthetic of an idealized—albeit threatened—landscape of ice sheets, icebergs and glaciers” prevails in the artistic imaginary of the polar regions, whose remote, fragile, and forbidding vistas are suspiciously devoid of people or politics.14 In his discussion of Antarctic works and performances by Andrea Juan and other artists, Jens Andermann likewise finds their appeal to the sublime problematic, as it drives a wedge between nonhuman nature and the world of politics and culture and posits nature as “un mundo-objeto autosuficiente” (a self-sufficient world-object).15 In a similar way, Fargas’s Antarctic works are usually filmed alone against the empty expanses of ice, interacting only with the elements in a setting that seems otherworldly and beyond the heat of human debate. Intrepid invaders in a bleak and lonely landscape, they stand in for humanity’s ingenuity and imperialist intent. In doing so, however, they demonstrate that Antarctica is certainly not set apart from human politics but is increasingly the focus of technomodernity’s continually renewed promises to control and rationalize nature. On the other hand, the photographic and video documentation of the installations and their circulation as artworks rather than scientific prototypes creates space for the kind of public discussion on geoengineering that Klein fears is being excised.
Climate science, while uncovering important changes in the planet’s systems, at the same time “conditions our response in a way that means that the baton has always already been passed to technology,” as Bronislaw Szerszynski claims.16 Following meteorology, which developed as “a science of measurements, instruments and standardization,” our response to the changing weather has been conceived as one of technological calculation and control.17 A precursor to Fargas’s ice-making machines was, naturally enough, his Sunflower: Centinela del cambio climático (Sentinel of Climate Change), a giant robotic flower designed to monitor atmospheric variables such as air pollution, UV radiation, and temperature.18 As Szerszynski suggests, approaching climate change by framing it technologically, as a phenomenon that can be calculated and made coherent, “invites us to extend rather than withdraw our enframing of the play of nature.”19 Paradoxically, then, at a time at which climate change challenges us to recognize the damage caused by the unchecked exercise of human power over the natural world, climate science may lead to an “extraordinary hypertrophy of hubris concerning the possibilities of predicting and controlling natural processes,”20 the logical expression of which is geoengineering to reverse climate change.
Fargas’s works might, in the end, evade this charge of hubris, through their ludism and their evident unscalability. He remains convinced, however, that “ahora no queda otra que una solución tecnológica” (technology is the only solution left now; pers. comm., April 17, 2017). Glaciator and Don Quijote were conceived as a challenge to science to come up with its own technologies to control or reverse climate change. Fargas considers that the relative freedom of artists—unlike scientists, artists do not have to follow strict protocols or write peer-reviewed papers—allows them to move into the vanguard of experimentation (pers. comm., April 17, 2017); this freedom may then act as a “disparador” (trigger) to generate serious design proposals from within the field of science, as art explores ideas that seem fantastical today, but may become reality in the future.21 This conception of the relationship between art and science steers us toward a less ambivalent reading of Fargas’s works that would ultimately find in them the expression of a commitment to a technological solution to climate change. The fantastical character of Glaciator and Don Quijote, rather than allowing room for a chink of doubt concerning the capacity of geoengineering to restyle our climate’s future, simply casts a vote for the imaginative power of art to stimulate technological progress. Rather than offering a distinctive perspective, art in this case effectively accommodates itself within the normal logic of technological development under capitalism, whereby today’s fanciful invention is tomorrow’s lucrative new technology.
Although the utopian qualities of Fargas’s works appear to lead us away from the apocalyptic visions of climate change that shape media discourse, they follow the same fundamental logic: one that posits “Man” as “the maker and destroyer of worlds,” in Zylinska’s words.22 As Erik Swyngedouw observes, “the apocalyptic imaginary is one that generally still holds on to a dualistic view of nature and culture,” as it is founded on the understanding that humans have disturbed the ecological balance of the planet, but this can be restored through action on our part.23 Even the most stark warnings of impending catastrophe, Swyngedouw argues, convey “an unbridled optimism in the species capacities of humans to act if urgency requires it” and in the scientific and technological ingenuity of some to deliver the right solutions.24 Fargas’s Antarctica works retain both this dualism and the linear temporality of apocalypticism, as they represent attempts to turn back the clock and recover, through human inventiveness, something that has been lost: in this case, melting polar ice. While leaving undisturbed the humanist teleology that underpins both narratives of apocalypse and salvation, however, Fargas’s works do raise questions about the scalability of technological solutions to climate change and cast doubt on that “unbridled optimism.” Whimsical and quixotic, his projects remain mere gestures toward the kind of unprecedented intervention that discourses of catastrophe seem to demand, falling deliberately short of the overweening ambition that would be required.
Environmental Futures beyond Precarity
Both the humanism and the linear temporality of apocalyptic Anthropocene discourses are more directly challenged in the work of the Ecuadorian artist Paul Rosero Contreras. Rosero has collaborated with natural scientists and designers in a number of transdisciplinary projects. Many of these are developed at sites that have become iconic indicators of environmental change, such as coral reefs, glaciers, and polar ice caps. Rather than lamenting the devastating effects of human activity, however, they more often stage an encounter with the multiple entanglements that sustain life through continual processes of coevolution. Rosero also participated—alongside Fargas—in the First Antarctic Biennale of 2017, but with a very different vision of a polar future. Arriba! was a site-specific intervention composed of a glass “time capsule” containing a cacao plant, audio recordings of a cacao harvest, and a generous supply of chocolate bars, enough to feed the Biennale ship’s staff and passengers.25 The work’s play with temporalities beyond the human prompts us to consider the past and future of Antarctica in a way that circumvents both the apocalyptic narrative of climate change and the utopian belief in the potential of human technologies to reverse it, focusing instead on the extraordinary evolutionary capacity of plants to adapt and evolve.
Having survived the journey from its native Ecuador, the cacao plant—still in its sealed capsule—was placed in Paradise Bay, where fossil findings have revealed that Antarctica was once part of the same land mass as Australia and shared its tropical climate (see fig. 3). The sense of spatial and temporal disjunction between today’s icebound landscape and the presence of the tropical plant was heightened by the work’s other performative elements. During breakfast on the Biennale boat, recordings of a cacao bean harvest and the singing of birds in the Amazonian rainforest were played at a high volume, immersing the passengers in an environment that was entirely alien to the one in which they found themselves. As cacao is now thought to have been first cultivated in the rainforests that are part of Ecuador today and chocolate is now one of Ecuador’s most important exports, depositing a cacao plant in Antarctica makes playful reference to the tradition of planting a national flag as well as to narratives of Antarctic exploration: until the invention of the energy bar, chocolate was a favored source of energy for polar explorers. Rosero’s work thus performs couplings in space and time—between the tropical and the polar, the prehistoric and the present—that initially seem to confound the logic of ecology, but actually make precise references both to human histories of exploration and conquest and to vegetal histories of colonization, past and future.
On the wrappers of the chocolate bars, passengers found the words “and new trees will be born out of glaciers, into the vertigo of eternity.” Rosero’s work is a speculative experiment in the use of technology—the climate-controlled capsule—to cultivate plants in extremely cold environments; it is, in part, a fictional intervention into current research on food production in space being conducted in Antarctica by the EDEN ISS project, for example.26 But it could also be read as a prediction of a different environmental future for Antarctica, or as a creative mash-up of temporalities beyond the human. While taking us back to a time many eons ago when there was no ice in the Antarctic, Rosero’s work simultaneously projects us into a future in which the region might once again warm to tropical temperatures (and might even be colonized by cacao plants). It references the capacity of human technology to transcend the exigencies of climate and biological milieu, but it also sketches out a vision of the emergence, the flourishing, and the eventual extinction of different life forms within the deep time of climate cycles, which dwarf human history.
Work had started several months before the Biennale to obtain the permissions necessary to bring a tropical plant to Antarctica; having visited the region beforehand with a researcher’s permit, Rosero knew what would be needed to negotiate authorization to bring in a foreign species, even one that would be hermetically sealed in a container. The elaborate negotiations form part of the performative element of the work. They call attention to the narrative of Antarctica as a region of pristine, untouched nature that the international community has decided to accord a high degree of protection, and that takes on the role of the Romantic wilderness: increasingly idealized as it shrinks beyond the advancing frontiers of civilization. The almost fanatical sense of a duty to preserve the delicate balance of the ecological status quo in Antarctica is rendered anachronistic as Rosero’s work brings us face to face with the deep time of climate change over millions of years.
Does Arriba! lend force, then, to the arguments of those who seek to question the impact of human activity on climate change? Climate change skeptics often claim that the rising temperatures recently recorded are simply a result of the Earth’s natural cycling through warmer and cooler epochs. Certainly, Rosero’s brazenly sanguine vision of a tropical Antarctica confounds us by providing no moralistic message about the dangers of global warming, no heralding of catastrophe. The green leaves of the small cacao plant stand out brightly against the inhospitable icy slopes of Paradise Bay. If a warming Antarctic is a fate we have been taught to fear, Rosero’s tropical time capsule is a disconcertingly cheery intruder into a panorama of doom. Not all species will be at greater risk on a warming planet: some will advance and recover territories that once belonged to their ancestors, and the Antarctic could return to a lush green land, supporting much greater biodiversity than at present. Arriba! thus complicates oversimplistic narratives of conservation, revealing the extent to which climate apocalypticism veils an investment in the status quo that cherry-picks from the findings of environmental science. Climate change tends to be a driver for the formation of new species as well as the extinction of other ones, and plant diversity is generally greater in warmer environments. In whose interest, and for what purpose, therefore, should climate change be stalled or even reversed? The presence of the real plant in Rosero’s capsule ultimately diverts our attention away from the technological feats of transporting a tropical tree to Antarctica and growing plants in space; it symbolizes the colonizing, self-regenerating, adaptive capacity of plants themselves, which existed on the continent before humans and will almost certainly survive our extinction.
The resilience and adaptability of other species are also central to Rosero’s video installation Purple Haze (2018), which was shot underwater near the fumaroles of the active volcanic island Roca Redonda, in the Galápagos archipelago.27 It formed part of a collaborative research project into the resistance mechanisms of a particular species of coral, on which Rosero worked together with marine biologists Margarita Brandt and Nataly Guevara. Like Arriba!, Purple Haze is a work of speculative fiction that superimposes different temporalities and locations, questioning how environmental futures are constructed. Its own particular version of a counterapocalypse does not rest on a recognition of “precarity,” as Zylinska’s does; it enters into closer dialogue with the “collaborative survival” that Tsing chooses as a related paradigm, and closer yet, as I will suggest below, with the notions of abundance and excess that allow Andreas Weber to trace his own connections between ecology and the economy from a biosemiotic perspective.
For many scientists, corals act as a historical recorder of climate change, a barometer for the current health of oceans and an early warning system for potential future damage to other systems. Harboring the greatest biodiversity of any ecosystem, coral reefs have been subject to periodic mass extinctions over the ages and are currently among the ecosystems that are most endangered by global warming. In recent years, images of bleached, lifeless reefs have become a harrowing emblem of environmental destruction in media reports and documentaries. Purple Haze deliberately diverges, however, from the imagery, narrative structure, and stylistic conventions of the marine life documentaries that have attracted sizeable television audiences in recent years. The video’s long takes, full of effervescent life, are not ordered according to the classic narratives of discovery or apocalypse: human divers are totally absent from the camera frame, and we are shown no images of dying coral reefs.
The camera takes up different positions in and around the rocks, loosely alternating between close-ups of different species and wider shots of the larger ecosystem, in which we also see the fish it supports. The immobility and long duration of the shots emphasize how much within the frame is rippling, gliding, gushing, swelling, churning. The video allows us to encounter something of the complexity of coral reef ecosystems. In the exuberant, luxuriant world that Rosero films, it is hard to disentangle activity from passivity, or organism from environment: which creatures are moving of their own volition, and which are being ruffled by bubbles and eddies? We start to grasp something of the multiple entanglements that mark the engagement of species with their environments, and the extent to which agency is distributed across a bewildering range of forces and life forms.
The large format of the screen and the use of surround sound at a high volume stage an affective, mesmerizing spectacle that cannot be reproduced by most living-room televisions. However, like Rosero’s other works, Purple Haze is not an example of ecomimesis in art, designed to promote an immersive, unmediated encounter with the environment. What distances the video both from a conventional nature documentary and from immersive environmental art is its flirtation with science fiction. Its vivid hues, enhanced by color correction during the editing process, create a phantasmagoric effect, heightened by the twisting columns of bubbles escaping from the fumaroles (see fig. 4).28 The first overhead shot, in which we descend into one of the vents, resembles the landing of a spacecraft in the trenches of a distant planet. The sound of the bubbles we see is supplemented by extradiegetic bubbling and an eerie humming, layered over with low portentous groans and subtle synthesized glissandos that evoke the song of alien species or perhaps the distant flybys of UFOs. The title Purple Haze comes from Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 song, which includes the line “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?” These references, along with the quasi-psychedelic colors, lend a retrofuturistic tone to the work that heightens its self-conscious embedding within the science fiction genre.
Featuring the highly reverberant calls of marine animals, overlaid with other sounds from glaciers and icebergs recorded by Rosero in other locations, the synthesized audio track creates a strongly deterritorializing effect. The sweeping electronic glissandos that seem to evoke spaceship landings might be identified by a marine biologist as the striking vocalizations of Weddell seals. Weddell seals are the southernmost species of seal in the world, found mostly on ice in or near Antarctica; they rarely migrate, and usually remain within a few miles of their birthplace. Very dependent on sea ice, they would be extremely vulnerable to rises in sea temperature. Their disembodied, spectral presence on the soundtrack of a film shot near the equator suggests a kind of being-together that is scientifically unimaginable, or that would require thousands if not millions of years of evolutionary change. Or perhaps these are the ghostly premonitions of an extinction to come; it may be that we are viewing—as in Arriba!—the future landscape of a tropical Antarctica, haunted by marine animals that have long since disappeared. Rosero’s remixing work—like the relocating of the cacao plant in Arriba!—is an act of dislocation that demonstrates how art may take us beyond the time and space of the ecological here and now, creating new imaginaries of climate pasts and futures. In this case, however, it also conveys a crucial ecological truth, which lies in the inseparability of the fates of polar ice, Antarctic seals, and coral reefs: all are vulnerable to rising sea temperatures and bound together in a global ecosystem in which tiny changes may have sweeping effects across the planet.
In fact, the video’s futuristic aesthetic is entirely in keeping with the objectives and the findings of the wider scientific investigation that provided the context for its production. The fumaroles lying beneath the water at Roca Redonda are among only a very few in the world that are not too deep to be examined by divers. The carbon dioxide bubbles naturally emitted from the volcano vents here increase the acidity of the water, an effect that will be increasingly seen across the world as the oceans absorb rising amounts of CO2. Roca Redonda is therefore a site at which the likely future of coral species can be observed, and where their mechanisms of defense and adaptation can be studied. However, we are not shown images of the ashen expanses of bleached coral reefs of the kind that frequently punctuate the narratives of sea life documentaries. The riot of different textures and colors in Rosero’s film attests instead to the evident flourishing of corals in the area. The particular species the team has come to study is the orange cup coral (Tubastraea coccinea), which is adapting successfully to greater acidity. It is shown alive and well toward the end of the video, and indeed in higher numbers than were found during a previous trip undertaken by one of the researchers (pers. comm., February 5, 2019).
Corals provide a particularly good example of interspecies symbiosis, exchanging nutrients with algae and numerous microbes.29 The bright colors of corals come from the pigment-producing algae living inside them, which are visible through the clear bodies of the polyps. The study of symbiosis in corals and other organisms has led to a “paradigm change” in biology, which has replaced an emphasis on individual species with the study of multicellular organisms as holobionts, consisting of a host and a microbiome, connected by means of myriad forms of collaboration and coevolution.30 Microbiomes have been shown to play a vital part in the resilience and adaptation of their host by helping them to adjust more quickly to changes in environmental temperature or acidity.31
Focusing on species as composites and communities undermines the notion of individuality that has held sway in much evolutionary thought since Darwin. Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan remind us that “among the most successful—that is, abundant—living beings on the planet are ones that have teamed up,” with cooperation vital to the early spread of life on Earth.32 Species do not live or evolve in isolation; life is instead “a network of cross-kingdom alliances.”33 The biologist Esperanza Martínez, who has founded and directed a number of associations and networks promoting the defense of the environment in Ecuador, similarly affirms a recent shift toward rethinking evolution in a way that emphasizes cooperation over competition and symbiosis over the “survival of the fittest.” As she explains, “La visión de una Naturaleza hostil, patentada en el pensamiento occidental, en donde sobrevive solo el más fuerte, está siendo superada” (the vision of a hostile Nature, patented by Western thought, in which only the strongest survives, is being superseded). In its place are arising theories that attempt to understand forms of cooperation in nature.34 Much of the knowledge that is relevant to such studies, she contends, is to be found “en los pueblos ancestrales, que mantienen vínculos directos con la Naturaleza” (in ancestral people, who maintain direct relations with Nature).35 Specifically, she connects the new emphasis on relationality in biology with the (much older) principles that underpin the concept of sumak kawsay in Andean thought (often translated as “good living”), which is founded on an integration between the natural, social, and spiritual realms.36
Martínez’s suggestion that new relational paradigms in biology could inform thinking about alternative forms of social and economic organization is echoed by biologists, philosophers, economists, and anthropologists across many regions of the world who are promoting models of the commons. Their arguments challenge the “mutually reinforcing” metaphysics of neo-Darwinism and capitalism by shifting the terms of comparison.37 Weber points out that “the idea of universal competition unifies the two realms, the natural and the socio-economic,” and “validates the notion of rivalry and predatory self-interest as inexorable facts of life.”38 He proposes instead that we consider nature as “the paradigm of the commons.”39 Key to his argument is an understanding of the biosphere that is not governed by the dynamics of competition, property, scarcity, efficiency, and optimization, but rather cooperation, symbiosis, abundance, and excess. The biosphere as a whole is founded on a “donation” (solar energy), and the workings of nature are “highly redundant” rather than efficient, relying instead on “generosity and waste.”40 These protect species to a significant degree from the precarity that might otherwise result from environmental change and provide opportunities for other species. As Weber argues, a higher number of species in a niche does not lead to increased competition and the dominance of the “fittest” ones, but rather “to richer permutations of relationships among species and thus to an increase in freedom, which is at the same time also an increase of mutual dependencies.”41
This is very much the imaginary of the biosphere that underpins Rosero’s work: one in which forms of life are intimately, reciprocally, and multiply interwoven, and in which the wild profusion of different colors, forms, and textures clearly exceeds mere strategies of survival. The vision accorded to us by Purple Haze is not one of precarity, the need to eke out an existence in the context of a scarcity of resources and a constant threat of environmental change. It is one of successful adaptation, drawing on the abundant resources made available through the myriad symbiotic relations that connect species together in a given ecological niche, and which help organisms respond quickly to change. Purple Haze demonstrates the techniques of “collaborative survival” that Tsing explores in her study of matsutake mushrooms, in which “cross-species coordinations” are key to riding out the hazards of environmental disturbance.42 But survival is too meager a term to describe the flourishing coralscapes of Purple Haze. As Zylinska observes, Tsing “challenges the traditional view of precarity as ‘an exception to how the world works’ and proposes we instead accept precarity as ‘the condition of our time.’”43 What new paradigms in biology and biosemiotics point to as the condition we share with other species is not precarity, however, so much as the cooperation, abundance, and generosity that characterize many relationships in the natural world: the opportunities for self-transformation and co-evolution that arise from close collaborative interrelations with other species.
This is also a major theme of another work by Rosero, a sculpture titled Anticipación a una ausencia (o Yasuní 2.0) (Anticipation of an Absence [or Yasuní 2.0], 2015). To create it, he prepared a biological substrate that could be dispensed by a 3D printer, combining biodegradable plastic filament and a fungus growing in agar. This mixture was then deposited in layers to generate a group of skeletal “trees.” The resulting “forest,” crystalline and largely white, looks unearthly, bringing to mind both a barren postapocalyptic landscape and a fairytale kingdom made of ice (see fig. 5). The muted monochrome presentation of Anticipación seems a far cry from the vibrant palette of Purple Haze; the two works are nevertheless strongly linked in their interest in forms of biological resilience and regeneration. More sober and stark in its expression, Anticipación demonstrates the potential in organisms to withstand even the most extreme environmental destruction.
The work was developed by Rosero as a reflection on the failure of a long-standing campaign to prevent oil extraction in the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador. The park is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, holding multiple world records for its richness in flora and fauna; in 1989 it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But Yasuní also holds around 40 percent of Ecuador’s oil reserves. President Rafael Correa had pledged in 2007 to leave the oil untapped in exchange for compensation from the international community; in 2013, however, he declared that the international response had been insufficient, and that drilling would commence, as it did, in 2016. The extraction continues to be widely protested by environmental activists and by the Indigenous communities living in Yasuní.
In its seemingly sterile appearance, Rosero’s piece acknowledges the horror of the potential loss of an extremely valuable tranche of Amazonian forest. And yet his own artificial forest is certainly alive, the delicate mushroom fronds twisting and tangling around the “trees” to form their foliage, demonstrating the capacity of natural organisms to adapt and survive even in the most adverse environments. The fungus, Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus), often lives in and feeds off dead trees, digesting and decomposing the wood, and thereby breaking it down to make nutrients available to insects and other organisms. These nutrients then make their way into the soil and are reabsorbed by plants. Mycelium, the vast underground network of which mushrooms are the visible fruit, is responsible for making soil by breaking down organic and inorganic compounds, including pollutants, and even—most relevantly—the hydrocarbons in petroleum in oil field waste pits. It also plays an important role in maintaining biodiversity. The mushroom thus becomes here a powerful symbol of hope in nature’s capacity for renewal.
The title of Rosero’s work anticipates a future in which the natural riches of Yasuní have been entirely exploited, leaving only a postnatural landscape, and yet also manages to convey a sense of hope for regeneration. It unsettles the apocalyptic logic that would have delivered images of a lost paradise or a future wasteland, creating instead a more equivocal future that neither prophesies catastrophe nor professes a mindless trust in the power of ever-advancing technology. The “2.0” is partly ironic, as it is clear that this version is in no sense an improvement on the original, but it does suggest a second chance, a way in which technology might henceforth be used to promote the flourishing of life and not just the extraction of resources.
Anticipación a una ausencia is an invitation to notice the worldmakings of other species that persist despite, and amid, the large-scale ecological disruption wreaked by humans. It also presents an encounter between two different kinds of project with respect to the world, which Tsing classifies as “scalable” and “nonscalable.” Scalable projects are those that can be expanded without altering their basic elements.44 The artificial production of the forest evokes the logic of a plantation, which for Tsing represents “the triumph of technical prowess over nature,” as indeed modernity does more broadly.45 The plantation, as a quintessential form of colonial production, was conceived as a scalable project; to maximize yields, all “entangling claims” had to be extinguished, allowing nature to be brought under control.46 In reality, this is never fully possible, as “ecological complexity is nonscalable.”47 Tsing calls instead for “a nonscalability theory” that would pay attention to “the mounting pile of ruins that scalability leaves behind” and help us understand how multispecies landscapes work.48 Rosero’s mushrooms represent the crucial entanglements that plantations attempt to eradicate, to the ultimate cost of biodiversity and ecological health, but also inevitably fail in that aim. They demonstrate, as Tsing affirms, how “many projects for life—both human and otherwise—take place in the ruins of scalability designs.”49
The failure of the Yasuní conservation initiative dealt a particularly heavy blow as it came only a few years after an extremely significant step forward in the protection of the environment in Ecuador. In 2008, it became the first country in the world to inscribe the rights of nature into law, in a series of amendments to its Constitution. Drawing on Indigenous perspectives on more-than-human communities, the new provisions reposition nature beyond the capitalist language of “natural resources” for social and economic growth. As Eduardo Gudynas affirms, they recognize that nature possesses intrinsic value beyond its usefulness to humans.50 Adopting a moral stance of protection toward threatened species and ecosystems is not enough to challenge an anthropocentric ethic: only a recognition of the rights of nature, and the very different values it embodies, may question such an ethic.51 Acknowledging the intrinsic value of nature means recognizing the subjecthood and agency of other species, and defending their right to pursue their own “proyectos de vida” (life projects).52
Rosero’s Anticipación a una ausencia does not explicitly mention the important issue of Indigenous rights over the land to be drilled in the Amazon. The disappearance of what we might identify as the political here becomes a way of emptying environmental futures of the humanist and the apocalyptic. Nevertheless, in his use of technology Rosero avoids any attempt to evoke a natural world untouched by humans, which is the nostalgic corollary to the apocalyptic imagery of climate change. A concept of nature that is not separate from human activity is central, as Gudynas explains, to Andean perspectives on nature that informed the new Constitution in Ecuador. Far from representing the lost idyll of premodern harmony often implied in catastrophic narratives of climate change, the concept of Pachamama prevalent in Andean cultures is not that of an untouched nature, but one that is worked and cultivated by humans in the context of relationships of reciprocity, complementarity and correspondence.53 It is thus opposed to those Western dualisms that separate humans from nonhumans, and culture or technology from nature.54
This understanding of the imbrication of nature and technology and the importance of relationships of reciprocity is also key to the política en femenino (feminine politics) advocated by the Mexican sociologist and activist Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar. This is a politics organized around “la producción y defensa de lo común, que a su vez es la garantía de la reproducción de la vida humana y no humana” (the production and defense of the common, which guarantees the reproduction of human and nonhuman life).55 Gutiérrez Aguilar’s understanding of the common, which derives from—but is not limited to—Indigenous communitarian practices, does not distinguish between nature and technology in the way that modern Western thought so often does. It refers to the “acción colectiva de producción, apropiación y reapropiación de lo que hay y de lo que es hecho, de lo que existe y de lo que es creado, de lo que es ofrecido y generado por la propia Pachamama y, también, de lo que a partir de ello ha sido producido, construido y logrado por la articulación y el esfuerzo común de hombres y mujeres situados histórica y geográficamente” (collective action of production, appropriation, and reappropriation of what there is and what is made, of what exists and what is created, of what is offered and generated by Pachamama herself and, too, what has been produced, constructed, and achieved from this through the coordination and common effort of men and women who are historically and geographically situated).56
Szerszynski claims that our technological framing of the climate leads us to ask “a very narrow set of questions. Is it changing? How fast? Are we to blame? Can we alter it?”57 In place of these questions, Rosero invites us to ask instead, What stories are left out in our narratives of climate apocalypse? What can we learn from nature’s own response to environmental change? How might technology make collaboration between species more visible, and even facilitate it? Rosero’s work gestures toward what climate science can teach us about renewal and resilience, not just tipping points and catastrophe; it seeks an understanding of the cyclical, adaptive, and relational nature of life itself, beyond questions of human security and risk, survival, and extinction.
While both Fargas and Rosero engage with the science of climate change and deploy technology as a medium through which to imagine and create environmental futures beyond apocalypticism, profound differences emerge in their approaches. Fargas’s works reinforce the linear conception of time that underpins narratives of climate apocalypse and redemption, while Rosero’s open our perspective to the contingent, multiple temporalities of interspecies encounters; Fargas is arguably invested in maintaining the climate status quo (the one in which human populations have thrived), while Rosero entertains visions of environmental futures in which humans may be sidelined or even absent, while other species thrive. Fargas’s work allows us to witness the potential resurgence of humanism from the ashes of climate apocalypticism, a humanism that (re)creates humans as stewards of the planet, sustaining the biosphere through geoengineering feats of unprecedented dimensions. The irony that characterizes his Antarctic projects does succeed in holding a mirror to such techno-optimism, however, subjecting it to critique and returning to the public sphere discussions that are often confined to geoengineering conferences. Rosero refuses unambiguously to endorse what Szerszynski calls “a soteriological dream of security:”58 his work does not frame environmental change as a set of challenges that can be resolved by technological means, nor does it necessarily present a return to climate stability as essential or desirable.
In the scientific models of relationality that have informed the work of Tsing and other theorists, Zylinska finds a possible basis for a feminist counterapocalypse. Relationality, as she states, “challenges the de facto masculinist subject that disinterestedly looks at the world as his possession and playground.”59 I have suggested two related frameworks through which we might extend or revise the important counterapocalyptic vision developed in the work of Tsing and Zylinska. First, if Tsing and Zylinska draw on the notion of precarity to forge connections between the environmental and the economic in worldmakings eked out in the interstices of global capitalism, Weber’s biosemiotic approach suggests that such connections might just as easily—and with greater biological accuracy—be forged on the basis of the forms of cooperation, generosity, and abundance that are everywhere at work in complex ecosystems. These principles also underpin a growing number of theories of the commons, in which forms of continual exchange integrate humans more tightly within the more-than-human world and provide the conditions for biological life and social relations to thrive.
Second, this biosocial perspective gains much from the concept of the expanded community central to many Indigenous ontologies in Latin America (and beyond), which is founded on biocentrism but does not draw an a priori distinction between nature and technology. Between the “technicist solutions,” “technocratic promises,” “technical fixes,” and various forms of “technological escapism” that Zylinska criticizes as responses to planetary crisis,60 there is little space for a more pluralized conception of technological practice that would include technologies that are not inimical to life or that do not posit an ontological distinction between the technologies of humans and those of other organisms. In Rosero’s work, technology becomes a means not only to decenter human perspectives and to derail the linear narratives of environmental catastrophe but also to reveal and even promote the life projects of other species.
Catastrophic depictions of nature in the images and discourses of environmental apocalypse that are common in the Anthropocene lead us to misread the current crisis as one of nature rather than one of human action. While their irony points to the overreaching quest for domination over nature that fuels geo-engineered solutions, Fargas’s Antarctica works largely leave intact a belief in human reason and its eventual potential to respond, via technological means, to the climate emergency. Rosero’s work, in contrast, shows us a nature that is flourishing, modeling instead the kind of adaptability and cooperation that we might adopt to accommodate the needs of other forms of life. The principles of creativity, collaboration, plurality, and reciprocity his projects demonstrate are central to many of the commons practices studied by Gutiérrez Aguilar and others, which offer a viable alternative to the “dominación y explotación capitalista y neoliberal de la vida” (capitalist and neoliberal domination and exploitation of life). These paradigms allow us to envision a future that is not antitechnological but one in which we may increasingly engage with other species in finding creative and collaborative ways of promoting life of all kinds.61
I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their perceptive feedback on the first version of this article. I would also like to thank Joaquín Fargas and Paul Rosero Contreras, who were very generous with their time in discussing their work with me and kindly gave permission to reproduce images of it here. This research was financially supported by the British Academy in the UK, and a modified version of it is published in Joanna Page, Decolonizing Science in Latin American Art (UCL Press, 2021).
For a video of Glaciator in action, see Fargas, “Glaciator on the Glacier.”
Andermann, Tierras en trance, loc. 6066.
See Joaquín Fargas, “Sunflower, Sentinel of Climate Change,” www.joaquinfargas.com/obra/sunflower-centinela-del-cambio-climatico.
See Joaquín Fargas, “Proyecto Utopía” (Project Utopia), www.joaquinfargas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/proyectoutopiaespanol.pdf.
Arriba is the name given to a variety of cocoa beans native to Ecuador.
See Eden, ISS, Ground Demonstration of Plant Cultivation Technologies for Safe Food Production in Space,” eden-iss.net. Rosero has been invited, with Barbara Imhof, to develop an artwork in response to the EDEN ISS greenhouse project; he presented a project titled Across Time that would involve the artificial manufacture of stromatolites, made from biowaste material from the EDEN ISS greenhouse.
For a fragment of the video, see Rosero Contreras, “Purple Haze.”
Color correction would have been necessary in any case, as water has the effect of bleaching colors, particularly red. But Rosero intentionally left time before editing the video so that his memory would have faded to allow space for fiction to enter what would otherwise have been documentary images. Pers. comm., February 7, 2019.
See, e.g., Bang et al., “Metaorganisms in Extreme Environments.” The research conducted by Rosero’s team in 2018 has yet to be published.
Weber, “Economy of Wastefulness,” loc. 635.