Mark Dion – By the Sea
Pinksummer: Since language produces sense and generates meaning, do you think that abolishing the word “race” from the vocabulary of the constitutions, where the laws of the states and nations are based, could discourage the discriminatory attitudes typical of racism?
Although starting from Hippocrates to the XVIII century the word “race” has been used more or less interchangeably with the term “species”, we now know that unlike species, race is not a taxonomic category, but a biologically blurry social construct based on a phenotypic grouping lacking zoological significance, regardless of the species of reference, whether it is the human (homo sapiens) or any other species belonging to the animal kingdom. Isn’t naming in itself the first form of classification and in this sense doesn’t it imply the possibility of thinking exclusively one’s own thought? In what relationship are words and things in your work?
Mark Dion: Interesting question. I am not an expert in constitutional history or the concept of race, however I have learned quite a bit from scholars of the history of science and evolution like Stephan Jay Gould (particularly in The Mismeasure of Man), Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway, about the grim history of “scientific racism”.
As far as I know, the term race is used in constitutional language as a way to protect the rights of all, regardless of race. It tends to be used to emphasize those who have suffered historically from discrimination, as is the same for the terms sex or sexual orientation. Perhaps it should could be eliminated, since protections and rights of “all people”, could actually mean all people.
As you say, race is not really a biological term, but a cultural one, which has a long history of mischief, from domination and discrimination to all out extermination. For the first half of the last century there was a fierce attempt to qualify race as something like species. Race theory camouflaged itself as evolutionary biology. I have a large collection of early 20th century biology text books which strive to frame race as a biological issues of separate species in the most appalling and fraudulent manner.
I think a big part of my work is about looking at the history of science and classification and highlighting the moments when ideology, pseudoscience and social agents permeates bourgeois science. Language, as you mention, can be the first instance of this pollution. The body of work I am exhibiting currently, is of course of full frontal attack on language and signification, since there is very little apparent logic to the drawings, masquerading as informational charts.
PS: Shortly after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 the Enlightenment led to the declaration of the rights of human, in which women and slaves were not implicitly admitted, but not explicitly excluded either, and in the context of sensory anthropology at that time began to consider inadmissible the sharp break between the rights of humans and non-humans, animals. Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, proposed an ethical approach aimed at minimizing the suffering of sentient beings. According to anti-speciesist political activism, the invention of the concept of species is fundamental to think of oneself as other than the animal. The exploitation of animality goes back to the Neolithic, to the birth of settled agricultural societies, and coincides with the beginning of slavery. In order to get out of the anthropocentric domination to non-human sentients, the question that anti-speciesists think must be asked is not whether they can speak or reason, but whether they can suffer. Do you think that the peculiar intelligence of humans can remain a parameter for determining the value of other zoological species?
MD: One fundamental problem of course is that we tend to frame the discussion as humans on one side and all animals on the other. The word ‘Animal’ is pretty bloody useless. The refers to everything from Protozoa and Corals, to Hummingbirds and Orangoutang. Not much room for differentiation. Clearly when we speak about animals we need to express that there is a world of difference between a sea snail and a killer whale, between a wolf and a cricket. There are numerous animals who share a form of cognition remarkably similar to our own, including complex social structure. I would have no issue including them in the concept of personhood, with all its rights and protections.
The problem of how humans imagine their place in the world, goes back to the formation of the most pernicious and persistent idea in the Western tradition – The Great Chain of Being or Scala Naturea. This concept which lasts from the classical period all the way into the 19the century (and indeed finds expression today), establish hierarchy and the sense of human as the culmination of the natural world.
I think so much of our culture has evolved as a direct denial of our animality, which would include death, sex, eating, aging, and the elimination of waste. The terror of our own mortality has much to do with the selling out of the beings we share the planet with. It is telling that we actually use the word ‘animal’ as insult.
PS: Capitalism could be the way in which homo sapiens has expressed anthropocentrism to the detriment of the planet and diversity. In this sense, could the post-human inter-speciesist ethic ever develop within a capitalist system whose paradoxical plasticity is that it also benefits from ethical veganism?
MD: As much as I truly believe that Capitalism and Colonialism, have been the most destructive historical factors for the world’s environments and biodiversity, I don’t think Capitalism is the only expression of world-shaping anthropocentrism. Certainly in the Western tradition as well as numerous others, domination, degradation and destruction of natural places and organisms existed long before capitalism.
However I totally agree that the kind of world where a post-human inter-speciesist ethic, or even a place that valued wild things and places for their inherent selves, can not be fostered by the values of capitalism which states that wealth is generated by the conversion of natural resources.
PS: Tell us about your environmentalism, made even more radical not only by the imaginative use of taxonomic categories handled with ease, but also by the intelligible line of your drawings, by the polite aesthetics of your “cabinets” and by what has been defined in your work as the lack of historical distinction with respect to the finds, generally artificialia, that you collect and order. Everything refers to the hic et nunc: your exhibits carefully arranged in historical indifferentiation seem to intimately subvert those same standards of positive or positivist museum cataloguing to which you refer. History intended as linear progress has exploded and with it every deterministic illusion about the futures should be extinguished?
MD: There are many ways to be an environmental thinker and artist. When I imagine art in the service of the environment and art as part of building a progressive culture of nature, I feel like the situation calls for “all hands on deck”. My role as an artist is to interrogate the history of ideas and objects to attempt to understand how we, as a society, have evolved a suicidal relationship to the natural world. That is my place in the construction of a thoughtful critique and manifestation of a new culture of nature.
However I also think one of the most important roles artists can have is to nurture and stimulate love for environmental justice, wild things and wild places, and I do not mean only pristine places. In the end, people will only save what they love, and they will only love what they encounter, learn about and experience. It is this progressive culture of nature I am championing. To thrive it will require the participation of a wide variety of visual artists – from those who take beautiful photos and make exquisite films about the natural world, to those who work with engineers and scientists to find practical solutions to ecological problems, to those who condemn destruction and greed, to those who imagine another world. We each have our job to do. My place in that is to interrogate the history of ideas in the natural history display tradition but also to build works and spaces that encourage fruitful interactions with biotic communities.
PS: In order to erase the thousands of botanical and zoological species that disappear from the face of the earth every year due to some action of human, has the binomial nomenclature of the last two taxa of Linnaeus’ taxonomic method been maintained: genus species in Latin and italics? Isn’t it poignant to think of a negative cataloging of the natural world?
MD: People often misunderstand my criticism of taxonomy as a war on scientific systematics, when this is not the case. While we have be vigilant about social agendas influencing systematics, the field is an exceptionally valuable tool in our understanding of world. Systematics is a way of tracing evolutionary relationships and while an artifical system it is an a structure which helps us comprehend and quantify biodiversity. While scientific classification may have started with the imposition of hierarchical thinking as a way to understand the works and methods of the christian god, it has transformed as field essential to illuminating the complexity of evolution.
The poignancy you mention is something I have long worked about (since the late 1980’s)- the modern period being bookend by first the list of plants and animals ‘discovered’, followed by the list of the species going extinct. Of course without systematic identification of organisms, we would not have a clue what we are loosing.
PS: It is said that collectors are the most passionate men/women in the world. Your work certainly implies collecting and ordering in a rigorous way, classification is the terrain in which your ascientific freedom as an artist manifests itself, considering that one can define in a proper way this attitude to freedom, with respect to the classifying action. In your work, is it the object that has a guiding role or is it the system that contains it?
MD: Well ordering a collection is remarkably similar to curatorial practice which I find almost indistinguishable from art making. While I often determine an organizational framework before I start collecting, it can not be overly rigid, since the method must be in dialogue with the objects themselves. There certainly are times when an object or series of things are just so truly remarkable that the entire framework must be altered to accommodate them.
As you say my orderings are often ascientific. Additionally I avoid recapitulation of standard organizational tropes like chronology, regional difference, taxonomic types, function and form, random or chance operations. As problematic as the wunderkammer may be, it does offer a range of allegorical ordering principals which predate the Enlightenment and can be expressively liberating.
PS: What will you be presenting at Pinksummer for your first solo show titled By the Sea?
MD: This exhibition is particularly exciting to me since much of the work is the result of the recent lockdown period. Most of work is based on an interaction with site. I respond to the location where projects are situated, research and explore and let the site tell me what do. Suddenly, I had no site, no team, no budget, nothing of my usual methodological structure. Rather then becoming paralyzed I recalled that I am an artist, I don’t need much more then pencil, ink and paper. So much of the work in the exhibition are drawings and charts made over this period.
Drawing has long been an essential aspect of my practice but in the past a large drawing for me would be 30 X 40 cm. These new works are often much larger. This was a great moment to adapt and push myself beyond my conventional range of expression.
Most of the works in the exhibition relate to issues of ocean health and marine biodiversity. This has been a major focus of my work for quite some time, but also it has much to do the Genova’s relationship to the sea. My home town, New Bedford, Massachusetts is also a gritty industrial sea port and fishing city. I feel a kinship with Genova based on my own formative experience as port city dweller. Part of this exhibition arrives from an infinity to the kinds of issues and challenges working cities of the sea face. Work related to the oceans can not help but be somewhat melancholic since there is so little positive news arising from the marine environments. One of the only ways to make work like this bearable is to deploy humor, craft and complexity in the critical DNA of the works themselves.
We would like to thank The Black Bag and Genova Cleaners for their help in collecting the plastic marine debris that the sea gives back to the beaches.