Mural by Knorke leaf, woman muralist and activist involved in the anti-nuclear movement in La Paz. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/knorke_leaf/
By Francesco Martone
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in conjunction with the publication of the Curated Spaces piece “In Difesa della Natura”: Visual Arts and Ecology in Times of Crisis” by Francesco Martone and Rosa Jijón in Issue 145 of the Radical History Review, Alternatives to the Anthropocene (co-edited by Ashley Dawson and A. Naomi Paik).
The article is available open-access until June 16, 2023.
Artistic practices and resistance against extractivism and for climate justice are increasingly converging in the quest for new languages and narratives. In a key publication on the matter, Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today (Sternberg Press, 2017), TJ Demos explains the role of visual culture in raising awareness and “mediating and encouraging a rebellious activist culture” whereby “a new imperative for artists, as much as writers, to intersect with movements in the global struggle for climate justice, human rights and ecological sustainability.” Curators and art institutions face similar challenges, inasmuch the intersection between artistic engagement and ecological activism would imply also radical changes in curatorial practices and cultural institutions, beyond the current concept of artivism and avoiding the temptation of artwashing. One of the key questions that is common to artists, practitioners and activists, is how to bring to light the connection between the Anthropocene and neo-extractivisms, the relevance of Indigenous knowledge systems and cosmologies and the importance of taking into due account transfeminist and decolonial perspectives on the matter. In this context, Latin America with its vibrant social, Indigenous and environmental justice movements, and innovative approaches such as the Buen Vivir (Good Living) or the rights of Mother Earth now represents an exciting space of experimentation and convergence between cultural and visual practices and grassroots movements. In this interview Bolivian scholar and activist José Carlos Solon delves into these topics and offers a cross cutting view on challenges and opportunities especially as regards the arts and activism scene in his native country.
Francesco Martone: Recently, in an international workshop organized during the Venice Climate Camp in Italy, a platform uniting radical activists and artists working on climate justice and against extractivism was launched. “Art for Radical Ecologies Manifesto” aims at exploring the connections between arts and activism, and of arts as a methodology of research and visualization of the climate crisis, activist arts that deal with the performativity of direct action, arts as a space of radical imagination in designing new ecologies that re-elaborate the relationship between human and non-human and arts as an archive of social movement practices. How would you frame the context in which the intersection between artistic practice and critique to the Anthropocene can support resistance to extractivism?
José Carlos Solon: I would start this conversation on the basis of the term “policrisis” that would allow to encompass the multifaceted complex crisis that the planet is currently undergoing. This neologism is meant to offer a unified and interconnected reading of the globalization crisis, the worsened climate condition and planetary limits, war, and the delicate economic situations of inequality that the pandemic is leaving behind. However, beyond being a term increasingly used by different actors, this unifying will is still in a stage of conceptual elaboration. I am encouraged to affirm that if there is something that characterizes the current situation, this is uncertainty, as a constant of the dynamics of capitalism that has made all the marginal and subaltern sectors –both in nature and in society– on the planet precarious.
Precariousness is well known and varies at the general level. In a country like Bolivia, neighboring Indigenous peoples face diametrically opposed problems. There is a certain transversality of their problems, however, when we put our feet on the ground and observe the local economic, social and political dynamics, reality can show us an infinite amount of contradictory situations. To give you an example, confronted with the threat of mining in the Amazon, some peoples tackle precariousness by imagining artisanal mining led by Indigenous people, while others position themselves in a comprehensive defense of their territories towards a ban on mining practices. Results and solutions are not very predictable, and we return almost symptomatically towards the horizon of uncertainty.
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to talk with Bruno Latour about one of his latest texts, Memo sur la nouvelle classe écologique (La Découverte, 2022). Being his student, I do not always agree with his intention to revive the discussion of social classes from a position that seems to deny current existing debates. However, between convergences and points of contention, I asked him: Towards the end of the text it seems that Nicolas Schultz (co-author) and you are on the verge of saying, “ecologists of the world unite” … however, how to do it? Latour told me: “It is important to move towards a greater description of the different ecological conflicts and realities that are the central component of the new ecological class.” Although I do not share the position on the “new class” proposed by Schultz and Latour, I believe that they are not mistaken in terms of the dynamics necessary to move towards description protocols that allow joining the dots of a complex panorama, indeed characterized by uncertainty.
Francesco Martone : Various forms of eco-territorial feminisms have multiplied in the context of the expansion of neo-extractivism in Latin America in the last 20 years. These forms of territory-related feminisms originate in the social, ethnic, and geographical margins. Indigenous women, “campesinas”, Afro-descendant, impoverished and/or vulnerable women from rural and urban areas, who come out of silence, mobilize in the public sphere, recreate relationships of solidarity and new forms of collective self-management against the negative effects of industrial and extractive projects. Feminist academics from Bolivia such as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui or feminist artist and activist Maria Galindo from “Mujeres Creando” have in various forms dealt with the intersection between patriarchy, extractivism and what Peruvian academic Anibal Quijano would name “colonialidad del poder”. From your perspective of an activist, academic and cultural practitioner working on issues related to extractivism in the Global South and in your home country Bolivia, how can this intersection between art, activism and radical ecology take shape and build transnational and transcontinental spaces of collective action and elaboration?
José Carlos Solon: In the Bolivian case, major environmental conflicts have been unleashed in recent years. Indigenous territories and natural parks have been threatened by the implementation of large infrastructure projects that would damage ecosystems and Indigenous people’s ways of living. For example, in 2016, the government of Evo Morales proposed the construction of the El Bala – Chepete mega-hydroelectric project that would flood 771 km2 of the Amazon that comprise natural parks and Indigenous peoples’ territories. Different actors from civil society crafted alliances to prevent the construction of these dams. Actors from small urban centers and from local Indigenous and peasant communities mobilized along the river where the megaproject was going to be built. In the main cities of Bolivia, different institutions carried out a technical analysis of the reports leaked to civil society. Activists from urban centers provided support by organizing demonstrations. This convergence of efforts was the key formula for the success of the mobilization that halted this project that was conceived to export energy to Brazil.
Artistic expressions began to appear progressively in this process of defense of territories where different spaces of action and conflict consolidated and converged. Ephemeral installations were made in urban centers, expressions of urban art and murals painted in public spaces throughout the region. This helped in keeping awareness on the issues behind export-led energy production and related extractivism alive. This case well describes how the convergence and articulation between activism, art and ecology can advance towards the effective defense of territories.
If this work process could take place among so many different actors, it might be possible to replicate it and move towards new horizons of action in defense of life and justice. For this reason, I believe that we are, first of all, in a stage of connecting the dots and weaving –thanks to different experiences and artistic expressions– a earth narrative capable of facing the predatory accumulation processes of peoples and nature. I firmly believe that it is time to nourish ourselves from different experiences and perhaps through art we can be able to advance in the construction of utopias that seem so lacking today.
Francesco Martone : 2022 marks important anniversaries: 50 years simce the Stockholm Conference that launched the concept of sustainable development, 30 years from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio and the year by which the Scientific Committee on the Anthopocene was expected to come up with a date to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene. A decision that far from being merely geological or scientific carries important implications especially when regarded from the perspective of Latin America, that in its history has carried the burden and wounds of European expansion, extractive capitalism and colonization. At the same time, it is in Latin America that alternative narratives, and radical practices in defense of Mother Earth and its rights, based on Indigenous cosmovisions, challenge the Anthropocene from a decolonized, ecocentric and antipatriarchal viewpoint, and have spread well beyond its geographical boundaries, inspiring activists, artists and cultural practitioners in the North. As regards art in particular, Indigenous epistemologies and cosmovisions are often taken into play in the elaboration and creation of artwork, curatorial practices, and organization of mainstream artistic events. Can you elaborate on further forms of extractivism that may arise, such as “epistemic or symbolic extractivism”?
José Carlos Solon : Extractivism is constantly being redefined. As Argentinian sociologist and scholar Maristella Svampa would say, extractivism is an accumulation model closely linked to the birth of capitalism. Different authors from the global South are concentrating on understanding the dynamics through which this phenomenon is redefined within the framework of a planet in material crisis. From the perspective of defending territories and environmental dynamics, extractivism has –in recent years– become one of the most used categories for understanding reality. For the same reason, it is interesting to underline not only how forces of capital unfold, but also, and in a diligent manner, how different strategies are developing to oppose to them. Extractivism is becoming one of the basic categories for thinking about and trying to elaborate systemic alternatives that are capable of overcoming the well-known dispossession dynamics to which peoples and territories have been subjected.
In this sense, a broad definition is needed. For this reason, I understand extractivism as an accumulation model that is made up of five elements. In the first place i) the massive extraction of renewable or non-renewable natural resources; ii) the low level of processing or value addition of these resources; iii) export as an essential destination; iv) subordination to international value chains controlled by corporations seeking to maximize their profits; v) high environmental, social and cultural impacts in the territories and countries from which these resources are extracted. However, these five elements would have to be observed taking into account the relativity of the conditions in which these develop. They are more of a grid of analysis than an immovable definition.
I also think it is necessary to observe and study the institutions that support and promote extractivism, in particular as regards their positions and means of implementation to support this process of accumulation. In Bolivia, for example, the State has become one of the main actors that promotes and allows extractivism in various forms through regulations and state policies. Based on an extractive ideology the State has become one of the main actors that justify depredation of nature. This is indeed a contradiction since Bolivia has been one of the main promoters of the Rights of Mother Nature internationally.
Given the diversity of elements that constitute extractivism, the types of mechanics that trigger a process of accumulation by dispossession can vary rapidly from one context to another. Accumulation by dispossession must be observed within the framework of the different values that are extracted and enjoyed far from where they are located or produced. In this sense, it is pertinent to observe and consider the challenges that occur in the framework of the construction of extractivisms, inasmuch extractivism could be based on material as well as virtual or cultural foundations. Today, for example, information from Internet users can be of great value for the generation of accumulation processes. On the other hand, new forms of accumulation processes can be detected, that are connected to artisan techniques for the extraction of certain elements of nature. As a matter of fact, Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge systems could turn into a fundamental part of accumulation mechanisms that can be put at disposition of capital, generating new dynamics of alienation and domination of peoples and nature.
Francesco Martone: Interestingly, and this brings us back to the relationship between arts, climate justice and critique to extractivism, Bruno Latour attempted to translate his theoretical analysis on the limits of current global environmental governance into artistic practice, (i.e. the “Theater of Negotiation” performed in occasion of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP15) held in Paris in 2015) , one of many efforts to connect visual and performative acts , theory and political practices related to climate and the critical analysis of the Anthropocene. How can, in your opinion, this “triad” further develop and what would be its contribution to strengthen resistance to extractivism on the ground, by overcoming what Latour described as a “crisis of representation”?
José Carlos Solon: A first precondition, is to point out the relationship between experience and transmission, that would allow the establishment of processes of description and redescription of the objective conditions of various ecological issues. Sharing experience through description processes is potentially a way to move towards action. Often abstract formulations have less ability to speak to people, but when we describe, reality embodies another dimension that easily manages to cover sensitive gaps thus promoting expressions capable of overcoming simple slogans for transformation. It is through the composition of different elements in the description of reality that one can move towards a shared experience.
Art as a mechanism for creating stories and narratives is therefore essential to build greater environmental awareness. In any case, it will be necessary to work towards a greater ethics of the interactions that occur with local actors and Indigenous peoples. Frequently, reformist stances that attempt to take advantage of the narratives about territories are hidden behind expressions that appear to support Indigenous peoples and their ways of life. Managing uncertainty involves evaluating complexity and acting with a clear ethics for justice, mainly social. I think it is important to work towards processes of claim that are comprehensive and that also include the contradictions between development and conservation of ways of life. These demands may take many forms (in the sense of aesthetics), but if they only generate a romanticization of some actors and their struggles they would be even more useful to the generation of capitalist accumulation processes.
Finally, I would like to point to the conditions that allow the generation of artistic expressions intended to bolster social transformation. The development of the theater of negotiations proposed by Latour in 2015, for instance, was made possible with the support of various institutions. Finding funds for art is always difficult. Still, support for it in the Global South is even more complex and is not a guarantee. In Latin America, moreover, these processes – even with the left in power – reveal some limits. In the Bolivian case, in the 14 years of the Evo Morales’s presidency support was given to artists that were pro-government. On the contrary those artistic activities that were showing dissent or highlighted the contradictions of the process of changed embodied by the Morales’ government did not receive any support. Today, in Bolivia, support for artistic expressions that criticize processes of injustice does not come from the State; it comes from international cooperation and some municipalities. Within the State, at some point of the process, the compass that used to point towards understanding the contradictions went lost. This losing of direction might offer the opportunity to think about alienation dynamics promoted by the State and by the logic of power, and about how these restrict creative processes and sensitivities that could contribute to understand contradictions and move towards the construction of utopias.
Francesco Martone is a member of the International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature based in Quito, Ecuador, and co-founder of the arts and activism collective A4C-Artforthecommons. An associate of the Transnational Institute and founding father of Greenpeace Italy, he lives between Italy and Ecuador.
José Carlos Solón is a sociologist with Master’s degrees in Political Arts from the School of Public Affairs at Sciences Po and Environmental Studies from the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) both in Paris. In 2022, he published “Espejismos de abundancia. Los mitos de la industrialización del litio en el Salar de Uyuni” (Mirages of abundance. The myths of lithium industrialization in the Uyuni Salt Flats). He is currently lead researcher and project coordinator at Fundación Solón in Bolivia.