Beyond the Scenic Vista

Human beings and their societies alter first nature at best in a rational and ecological way—or at worst in an irrational and anti-ecological way.1

Now, emotional and aesthetic values have overpowered those pragmatic ones.2

Huepetuhe, Madre de Dios, Peru, 2015. Photo: Maxim Holland.

Imagine that a federal government decided to protect a national forest: would that justify a violent intervention against a group of people who were mining illegally? What if these illegal miners were desperately poor? This scenario played out in late April of 2014, when the armed forces and National Police of Peru bombed away the livelihood of a consortium of gold miners in the Amazon—whether as a pretext or not—for ecological preservation.

As a consequence, the aesthetics of environmentalism became the enemy of a community, who has responded pragmatically not only by questioning, but also by becoming openly hostile to ecological concerns, resisting in rational and anti-ecological ways. Although more complicated than can be presented here, this scenario set the backdrop for an artist residency called HAWAPI, which has organized groups of artists over each of the past four years to travel and see firsthand the extremes of ecological emergencies around Peru. At a time when there are few new and revolutionary curatorial practices, founder Maxim Holland’s pursuit challenges artists to respond to these contexts and assumptions—both their own and those of the communities they collectively inhabit for about ten days—in very public ways towards a common language, and in this case, to incorporate the besieged community’s narrative to make any inroads to understanding.

Andres Reyes. Artist rendition of temporary cultural center after collapse in a thunderstorm, 2015. HAWAPI.

Following a recounting of this recent journey, I find relating to and defending Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) difficult, even vis-à-vis Timothy Morton’s playful writings, which indulge in literary games and linguistic calisthenics in pursuit of an original subjectivity. When applied to the real world, the solution of a “zero-person perspective”3 seems insufficient to talk about the end-of-the-world ecological concerns that communities in Peru already face from day to day, where conscious decisions are made to dehumanize and violently interdict real people. The major takeaway from Morton and his attempts to destroy capital-N Nature—through the inversion, flattening, and dissipation of hierarchies and boundaries between the human and non-human—is that aesthetics can, in fact, prevent sound ecological thought. Bookchin would even agree: “If nature were no more than a scenic vista, then mere metaphoric and poetic descriptions of it might suffice to replace systematic thinking about it.”4

Huepetuhe, Madre de Dios, Peru. 2015. Photo: Maxim Holland.

However, steeped in assumptions about interconnectedness and the collapse of the domination over “nature,” both Morton’s and Bookchin’s positions overlook that, even with full awareness of environmental damage, an unaestheticized world may not arrive peacefully and is not necessarily an ecological one. Beyond the “scenic vista,” Morton seems persistently trapped in the aesthetic dimension—a territory of new representations, metaphors, and ambient poetics that lack an impetus or criticality on their own in this newly denatured world—while in Bookchin’s prescription for a social ecology, he sees people. It’s this latter approach that can scale up from the page to occupy the space of the real world.



  1. Murray Bookchin, “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement,” Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, nos. 4-5. (Summer 1987)
  2. Jon Mooallem, “Streaming Eagles.” New York Times, June 20, 2014.
  3. Timothy Morton, “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects,” Graz Architectural Magazine (7): 2011, 78-87.
  4. Murray Bookchin, “What is Social Ecology?” Social Ecology and Communalism, AK Press, 2007.

Contributor

Ian Cofre

IAN COFRE is an independent curator and writer based in New York City, working primarily with emerging and established artists, locally based and from Latin America. Recent projects in 2015 include an other land...and in the other, our own, at Prosjektrom Normanns (Stavanger, Norway) in May, and Re/Post at Storefront Ten Eyck (Brooklyn, NY) in June.

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