Encountering the Non-Human: A Metaphysical Naturalism
“For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can't be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.”
As humanity’s strained relationship with the natural world continues to fracture and devastate ecosystems across the planet, a comprehensive overhaul of the idea of naturalism as such, has never been more urgent. Historically, Western notions of “naturalism” derive from Cartesian and Kantian conceptions of a hierarchy of lifeforms propped up by false dichotomies (mind/body, man/nature, form/matter, subject/object) and anthropocentric phenomenology. One would have to admit that certain forms of naturalistic thought justify the anthropocene. This fundamentally anthropocentric worldview has made the human/non-human relationship a valuative one, meaning everything is subsumed to a means-end logic in which nature is either an endless resource for our abuse or a debased or fallen state we are meant to transcend. Nevertheless, advances in philosophy, biology, ecology, and technology have also revealed the extent to which all life is interconnected and undoubtedly helped catalyze contemporary alternative naturalisms. In fact, advanced contemporary art practice remains a truly experimental field in which the contingencies of life are encountered and thought through as an “open work” wherein new naturalisms are becoming present. Artists are creating and thinking interdisciplinarily in order to step beyond the shallow bourgeois slogans of being “one with everything”--whether it is houseplants, yoga, or green energy.
In its application in art, specifically in art that investigates ecology, the staging of encounters between human/non-human subjects has been steadily shifting the cultural narrative surrounding naturalism away from an anthropocentric position toward a more just plane of immanence which stretches across all beings. These encounters have the ability to reveal to their audiences a “zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or indifferentiation” to the non-human world which, “presupposes a unity, a virtual primordial totality [...] dissociated according to the lines of differentiation but that still shows its subsisting unity and totality in each line” (Deleuze 95). What I would like to wager is that contemporary art revisits the long philosophical discussion of naturalism. By looking at contemporary practice, we can see that museums and galleries have been the sites of some of the most creative, clinical, and courageous investigations into naturalism this century. Although art offers a theoretical path for staging an encounter with the non-human, I do not mean to suggest that it guarantees one. Artists who have taken up the task of staging encounters with the non-human world do so by carefully intensifying discrete singularities or aspects of their non-human subject so as to awaken, shock, or disorient their audience.
In my own practice, the concept of the encounter has been vitally significant in my desire to revisit and complicate the human/non-human binary and subsequently position a new naturalism, what I think of as a metaphysical naturalism. I seek to create encounters for my audience which resist valuative systems, blind negations, and complicate the way in which my audience belongs in an ecosystem. One way I have taken to staging these encounters is creating works collaboratively with non-human subjects. For example, In 2019 I collaborated with a Calathea Makoyana (prayer plant) at The Ear in Brooklyn, NY on a performance entitled, Bio-Oscillations: Prayer Plant. For the work, each performer is outfitted with 3 electrodes which detect electric signals emanating from the performers’ bodys. The data from the electrodes is recorded using an Arduino Microcontroller and exported into Pure Data (audio processing language) via serial connection in real time. The data from each electrode set is sent to a corresponding oscillator which has been previously designated to each performer. The oscillators are built into a granular synthesizer. As each performer changes biochemically in real-time the sound of the synthesizer grows and evolves.
In addition to performing with non-humans, I have also explored the concept of performing for non-human subjects. In one work, Recitation for Begonia, Euphorbia, and Guiana (2018) I performed a vocal piece for three common houseplants. To ensure that this performance was entirely for the plants, I conceived of and programmed an audio filter which would spectrally analyze a human voice and subtract frequencies which are outside the audible spectrum of the non-human to be performed for, and resynthesize the resulting data. The filter, which I describe as a “Bio-Acoustic Telephone” produces a composite of a human voice, which is attuned for a non-human of one’s choosing.
Technological apparatuses and prosthetics are vital in my practice for staging encounters with non-humans. Oak Leaves are Hands Heard as an Oak Tree (2018) is no exception. For this project, an accelerometer (an engineering sensor used to detect vibrations in industrial settings) is mounted to an oak tree, thus revealing the inner acoustics of the tree. After an approximately 10-minute recording of the tree shifting, swaying, and crunching during a calm afternoon in Illinois, Wallace Stevens’ “Oak Leaves are Hands” is read aloud to the tree. Listening to this piece, one will be struck by the symphony of sounds emanating from the seemingly static tree. The recording becomes a site in which we can perceive the oak tree, as it really is- a dynamic living being, which uses processes much like our own nervous system to transmit nutrients, and communicate information. Unlike most cultural representations of trees, which embrace arboreal passivity, the oak tree is freed from its fixed position/stasis within cultural readings, rendering its agency (via acoustics) hyper audible to listeners.
In 2019, I completed an installation which further sought to expand upon the concept of creating an encounter in my work, De-Arborescence. For the installation, I worked and collaborated with the arborist team at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL to remove and shape dead tree stumps, which were generously donated to me. Each trunk was then outfitted with a speaker whose signal derived from a contact microphone installed directly into the stump, thus creating a feedback tone dependent on the unique structure of each tree root rhizome and the space in which it sits.
These modular sculptures, which function collectively as an installation, stage an encounter via an acoustic intensification of the vibrations of the physical world as they resonate through the disfigured tree corpses. Unlike living trees, which have a complex sonic life of biological activities and vibrations of the natural and anthropocene world, these dead, uprooted tree stumps no longer generate their own inherent happenings, and are instead presented as disembodied prosthetic sculptures in a gallery space, left to amplify and shift the sonic ambience including footsteps of museum-goers, patron voices, and the hum of the air conditioning.
The tree, reduced to stump, stands as an ecological consequence, hollowed of the sounds of its own sonic vitality, limited to the empty sounds of the space. In the absence of their own vitality, the “trees” can only give us back the transliterated, hollow echoes of our own movements, thoughts, and presence, thus intensifying their diminished vitality leading to an awareness of the biospheric consequences of the anthropocene and our seemingly human desire to want to ignore the sound-signs of nature. Proof that we do not want nature itself (as alterity, as a vitalism inseparable from a materialism), but only domesticated and tame representations of nature (e.g. a suburban lawn, house plant, or forest preserve).
In order to affirm a new naturalism, we must encounter a new naturalism, a metaphysical naturalism. A metaphysical naturalism which extends beyond boundaries to form a plane of immanence in which anthropocentric dualities are replaced by new alliances. I do not mean to argue for a transcendence, because “when [we] evoke something transcendent [we] arrest movement,” (Deleuze 146) instead I argue for more movement, movement beyond contemporary (passive) human experience- encounters which are not above life, but rather sink us deeper into life. These becomings do not simplify our connection or unify us with the non-human world, instead they surprise us, scrambling our coordinates, and deterritorializing us. We will always have a refuge in art, as art will always have a refuge in us, and when we extend our scope of artistic research to the non-human, we see that a new vision can be created, which extends beyond the binary, to arrive at a metaphysical naturalism attuned for our contemporary world.
Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books, 1988.
Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.