The difficulty of leaving human-dominance in more-than-human contexts

The difficulty of leaving human-dominance in more-than-human contexts

Image used with kind permission of Superflux. This imagined dinner brings together all animals – including humans – for a shared future. Photoshoot by Giorgio Lazzaro.

Critique on Refuge for Resurgence by Superflux, exhibited at La Biennale Di Venezia 2021

This critique is to enquire into the implemented ideas of otherness, speculative realism, and enchantment in Superflux’s project Refuge for Resurgence (RfR) (Jain, 2021). RFR is on display at the Arsenale Corderie as part of the La Biennale Di Venezia 2021. This critique also questions the role of such artefacts for design disciplines and for public consumption: Is the role of such projects centred on encouraging discussions and reflections around the topics and complexities of multi-species entanglements within human settings? Is it to illustrate possible futures of human/nature cohabitation? Or is it something more or less than these intentions?

Before exploring these questions, it is important to point out that I have only had access to this project through secondary channels, that is, through a collection of online news and art blogs such as Dezeen, and Instagram feeds and Superflux’s own website, as such I have not experienced the soundscape that has been described below nor experienced the project directly. It is also important to note that this article and my reactions to the project must be understood from this non-direct access to the project itself—but consider also, that this non-direct engagement is how many people will experience and judge the project, particularly in the time of the COVID pandemic. I have however, experienced another of Superflux’s projects directly, ‘The Mitigation of Shock’ (Arden, 2019), in Singapore, and that project offers some comparisons and insights to RfR in this essay.

Image used with kind permission of Superflux. This imagined dinner brings together all animals – including humans – for a shared future. Photoshoot by Giorgio Lazzaro.

The RfR project presents us with a four metre long, hand-hewn timber dining table with seating for 14 diners; three humans along with ‘a fox, rat, wasp, pigeon, cow, wild boar, snake, beaver, wolf, raven and mushroom’ (Jain, 2021). The table itself is made from a wild-grown ‘Surrey’ oak tree (Superfluxstudio, 2021) with a natural splitting along the table’s centre that holds an assemblage of bunched dried wild grasses with seed heads; forming a long wispy, textured table centrepiece. The centrepiece removes a human sense of formality from the tableau by adding warmth and a direct multi-sensory connection to nature. The table top is supported by four sawn tree trunk sections each still clad in their bark. Each of the stools or seats are in the basic form of a sawn tree trunk section, approximately 10-15cm high and a similar in diameter to the table supports (judging from the range of photos witnessed online), and are supported by three legs of thick unworked tree branches. Seat heights have been customised for each unique guest and a number of them have additional elements to accommodate the nature of its guest, such as having long thin branches affixed upright for the raven or pigeon to perch. The exhibit has a soundscape accompaniment which fills the space with a choral recital of a poem bringing the ‘mythological origin story […] to life’ (Jain, 2021). Upon the table for each guest is customised dinnerware made of repurposed human-made materials like broken brake-lights, circuitboards, plastic cutlery, and odd-shaped copper and brass artefacts. These synthetic found objects perform as cutting, scooping, or piercing sections which are conjoined with an assortment of twigs, resulting in human-sized cutlery. The dinner plates are in differing states of (dis)repair—recalling the Japanese art of Kintsugi—with customised illustrations painted upon each; depicting stories and contexts of each dinner guest. As a backdrop to the dining setting is a window to the outside world. The window is created from three LCD screens, hung together vertically to form a larger panel which reveals to us a world. A world of a flooded yet also of an established urban-scape; not a place of panicked disaster activity or recovery. It is a settled urban scene that shows vegetation growing verdantly among the partly submerged urban setting, dinghies are pulled up on shore or tied to a jetty suggestive of recent common activity, a brief heavy shower cascades over the scene suggestive of a wetter warmer world—it’s a different and otherworldly place but not implausibly so. It conveys to us a harmonious and perhaps hopeful setting—but not an ideal one. The view presents to us human resilience and adaptability among a new coexistence with Nature in the post-Anthropocene. Populating several roofs are domestic-scale wind turbines and solar panels, telling of the establishment of domestic energy generation in a settled community—akin to the window view of an settled urban-scape within the Mitigation of Shock project (Arden, 2019). In the RfR world outside we see a fox casually trotting among the vegetation and urban detritus. It is a scene out of the Solarpunk genre. Humanity and Nature in the early stages of finding new ways of being in a changed climate world.

Before delving further into the exhibited object itself however, let’s consider the title of the work, ‘Refuge for Resurgence’, by looking at dictionary definitions of both ‘refuge’ and ‘resurgence’. The relevant definitions of ‘refuge’ from the Oxford English Dictionary (2020 [2010]) are; ‘the state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or difficulty’, and ’a place or situation providing safety or shelter’. The dictionary defines ‘resurgence’ as, ‘an increase or revival after a period of little activity, popularity, or occurrence.’ The opening statement from Superflux on their website for the project reads, ’[a]s part of an ongoing mission to explore hope through crisis towards a more-than-human future, you are invited to a dinner table around which multiple species gather as equals’ (Jain, 2021). Thus armed with a break down of the project’s title and its opening premise we can now gather together a few initial interpretations and questions of the work presented to us. My position is that if RfR is an artwork, then there is placed upon us, the viewers, responsibility to derive an interpretation from it. If RfR is a design project that sets out to achieve certain desired outcomes, such as generating and steering specific discourse, then there is responsibility that the work must deliver to us. My initial reaction to RfR places it within both art and design realms. Helpful to developing this framing further, Superflux uses the word ‘symbolic’ in the last line of the opening paragraph on the project’s webpage, ‘a symbolic home where all species can prosper…’ (ibid.). This adjective permits RfR to remain emblematic, allegorical, and artistic, and lightens the task to address or speculate on a plausible entwined post-Anthropocene future. This positions RfR as an artwork, and contrasts strongly with Mitigation of Shock, in which the latter does deliver a plausible future enforced by deeply considered functioning details.

In RfR we are therefore contending with an artwork that uses symbolism and allusion to evoke its premise, with a title that works rather magnificently in its ambiguity for which species’ point of view it may be taking. The title’s definitions as described above, when considered from the nonhumans’ point of view, works hopefully and positively for the nonhumans’ revival and renewed relations with humans, or they could work darkly if considered from the humans’ worldview—a resurgent human-species; is this an attempt of social resurrection in yet another plot twist against Nature? Not likely given the overall aesthetics, contexts, and the poetics of the project, which evokes a sense of wonderment in an entwined multi-species future. RfR is not a speculative design project that probes the realities of what this future may actually hold for an interdependent humanity with Nature. And this is the framing we must use to differentiate the objectives of RfR versus those of Mitigation of Shock (and projects like them). RfR is not attempting to recreate a forecasted future, whereas Mitigation of Shock explores a future possibility. However, we cannot separate RfR and Mitigation of Shock entirely as there is a commonality between them. Not only Superflux being the team behind both works, but there is a common philosophy the projects share in their influence, speculative realism. 

Speculative realism is a collective term of philosophies, some of which has influenced the work of Superflux; as Jain writes, “[t]hus far, we’ve adopted an approach of speculative realism in a lot of our work” (Jain, 2021). Speculative realism is an umbrella term for a set of loosely related philosophies with arguably the most well known of these being Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) (Harman, 2018). OOO is influenced and informed by other philosophies, among them are Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory (2016) and Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (1993). There is a great deal of scope and complexities within these philosophies that both deviate and agree with each other and which lay well beyond the scope of a short critique essay to cover. However, a fundamental idea to these three philosophical positions is the concept of a flat ontology. Flat ontology as described by Harman is an ‘initial commitment’ to ensure we overcome our prejudices and allow for an equal access to reality for all objects (2018, p.55). Objects themselves are diverse and can include entities such as a river, stone, tree, quark, human, the Dutch East India Company, or a unicorn. Despite their unequal affects, all of these are equally objects and are considered equally real from a flat ontological position. To explore the complexities of speculative realism, Ian Bogost (2012) suggests ‘carpentry’ as a form of applied philosophy to craft philosophic ideas and perspectives (ibid. p.85, p.93).

Framing Refuge for Resurgence in the domain of, or at least influenced by, the speculative realist movement, the RfR project sits uncomfortably as it doesn’t move beyond the existing human-hegemony and human-centrism that this post-Anthropocene scene is setting out to confront. Rather, it presents us with a human-centred scene, with a human-centred dialogue (and audible poetry) with a selection of invited nonhuman species. The project remains with a single-universe of human dominance over the nonhumans, particularly with an idea of which entities may participate in such a meal, a notion seemingly reinforced by the presence of the tree that was used as resource, shaped to form the table and chairs for the exhibit without allowing for its own participation through its pluriversal (see Escobar, 2018) provisions of nutrients and habitat. The human dominance is made all the more striking with a dinner setting for three humans, a woman, child, and a man, outnumbering the other species’ representatives. The table and associated seating, and tableware are all human-scale. The consistent use of human-scale elements forces questioning on how welcome these nonhumans are. Beyond the branches for the raven and pigeon, the attempts to bring in the scales, languages, and worldviews of these other species, into a truly entwined relation with humans are overpowered by the human worldview. With the attention to detail that Superflux imbues in their work, what seem as oversights in this multi-species tableau, must be seen as purposeful. Perhaps we can attempt to speculate that, in this scene, humans have invited nonhumans to a shared meal and are unsure how to host these diverse creatures appropriately. In this interpretation this can go some way to forgive the human-centric design, as it is an event hosted by a well-intentioned, but ignorant, host.

However, if we can’t hold to this speculation of an ignorant host, but accept that this truly is a multi-species event where ‘multiple species gather as equals’ as Superflux writes, and we combine this with Jain’s reference to Superflux’s efforts to include speculative realist concepts, which acknowledges of (at least) flat ontological thinking within their design approaches, then their adherence and preference to human scales and language is an oversight that creates a diminished work when viewed from a flat ontological framing. But, by considering assemblage theory, we must consider the broader contexts that the project is part of, and we must not entirely judge this project from this single framing—this single worldview—but also acknowledge today’s reality of the human species remaining separated from Nature. And acknowledge that Superflux crafted this project for an exhibition as a method of generating important discourse and knowledge among humans for humans about embracing multi-species contexts, and therefore RfR is content to remain symbolic or allegorical in its attempt to demonstrate the coming together of species over a shared meal. Regardless of one’s view of RfR’s successes or failings, the project offers an object of speculative engagements and of reflection, from which knowledge can arise: Matthew B. Crawford writes in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, ’I have argued that real knowledge arises through confrontations with real things’ (cited in Bogost, 2012), a sentiment which underpins Bogost’s advocation for carpentry as applied philosophy.

The craftsmanship of the RfR project is undoubtedly beautiful and its photogenic qualities can’t be dismissed, and this beauty is of course purposefully designed for disseminating discourse beyond the locality of the project. So too, is the success of developing a project that reintroduces ideas and feelings of the enchantment that arises in a ‘mytho-poetic’ (Jain, 2021) reality that allows humans and nonhumans to gather in a welcoming, resourceful setting, which for me trigger recollections of scenes from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, My Neighbour Tortoro, the Wind in the Willows, and other fables that explore anthropomorphism and the limbus of the human/Nature divide.

In this manner RfR succeeds in reintroducing us to ideas of mysticism and enchantment of an entwined Nature with human domesticity which are vital steps toward humans relearning an ethical respect for Nature and accepting humanity’s finitude. But the project’s attachment to anthropocentrism is a jarring disconnect to its original premise of ‘multiple species [gathering] as equals’ (Jain, 2021) and the entwining of multi-species relations remains an allusion. As any conceivable reality—even a speculated reality—of birds, foxes, rats, and wasps attempting to use the customised dinnerware or even participate meaningfully over the shared meal, keeps the project within the realm of a very pretty fiction. 

The discussions that RfR surfaces are indeed timely and crucial for the enquiry into how humanity may move forward in rehabilitating Nature through our own rehabilitating relations with Nature. The wide dissemination of RfR will hopefully lead to additional projects that address and speculate on a reunited humanity with Nature in a more nuanced manner. But the materiality of RfR demonstrates a view of Nature that remains distinctly separated and anthropocentric; highlighted through the interpretation and use of a deceased wild-grown oak tree—which had been cleared ‘to prepare land for sale’ (Superfluxstudio, 2021). Despite the ‘ghostly’ state of the tree, trees remain vitally communal; after its seeming death (to us), its Nature performs as shelter, habitat, and nutrients for innumerable species above and below the ground. This missing or downplayed story of the lost future agency of the ‘dead’ oak wood material— the most dominant material in the project—demonstrates the project only invited a human idea of Nature. And combined with the project remaining with human-scales and language, the overall goal of shifting the ‘human perspective’ (Superflux, 2020) has been missed—as it itself has remained with the same perspective and not taken a pluriverse view of this story. But rather than achieving that difficult, specific goal RfR has actually achieved another vital one; it highlights the difficulty and complexity of shifting our perspective from anthropocentrism to post-anthropocentrism and how far we all have to go on this journey. Perhaps in this way RfR demonstrates that today we are not capable of entwined relations with Nature and while we have strong philosophical, ideological, and ethical positions that look to remedy the situation, we are still figuring out the applied methods and capacities to pursue it. 

As a future looking project that attempts to tell a story of a post-Anthropocene realignment with Nature, Refuge for Resurgence by Superflux seems to reinforce a reality that we are stuck, for the moment, with the truth of a humanity still attempting to release itself from the ‘delusion of [our] alienation from the natural world’ (Clark, 2013, p.99)—a humanity that is indeed attempting to repair our separation with Nature, with our realisation there is no Nature ‘over yonder’ (Morton, 2013, p.72). A humanity that is attempting to abdicate its hegemonic position founded in the Anthropocene, and which is also acknowledging the dire need for improved relations with Nature to prevent humanity’s current trajectory to ‘homelessness’ (Fry, 2012, Introduction). However, despite our acknowledgements and efforts and acceptance of concepts like flat ontology, projects like RfR demonstrate that we struggle to move on from human worldviews and still insist on retaining a dominant relation with Nature—even in symbolic scenarios, which highlight how important these projects are for us all in our long journey to achieve a changed ‘human perspective’.

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