SOOT BREATH/ CORPUS INFINITUM @ CCA until 24 July
Can climate change be discussed in isolation from racism? From slavery? Can it be discussed in isolation from anything? Johnny Rodger reviews the art work/film by Ferreira da Silva and Neuman commissioned for the Glasgow International Festival.
The COP26 conference in Glasgow in November will address strategies for dealing with climate change. There is no question that we have a range of conventional tools that everybody can use to understand what is going on in the environment, and why. We can read that by the 1830s the burning of fossil fuels to run Britain’s Industrial Revolution had already pumped more than thirty billion tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. Or, alternatively and more locally, by 1950 Glasgow locomotives (those red corpuscles of industrial liberal capitalism -elemental molecules made from concentrated earth and powered by water, wind and fire) were annually spraying thirty tons of carbon pollution across every acre of the city. We can also look to analysis, and, for example, the critique par excellence of Marx’s 27th chapter of Capital which demonstrates some of the connections that we need to be aware of in discussing the post-industrial climate. Namely the links between the setting up of the big factory towns in the industrial heartlands, the removal of peasants and indigenous peoples from homelands (the ‘Highland Clearances’) the extraction of materials from the land, the pivotal use of slavery, colonization both in search of resources and in creation of vast markets for commodities, and the medieval/aristocratic fantasies of the industrial bourgeoisie.
There is no dearth of researchable facts online, that is to say, nor of positivistic theories, of methodologies and of critique for employing in order to get to grip with the causes and effects of climate change. Yet how are we to understand then, for all the vaunted efficiencies of global capitalism, our continuing collective failure to confront the crisis and take appropriate action to safeguard the planet? Recent thinkers are not denying the accuracy of the value of these facts -far less of the Marxist analysis – but they see the necessity to rethink the problem in fundamentally different terms. Philosopher Cathérine Malabou proposes, for example that it can be understood in terms of addiction. Writing of the Anthropocene she suggests that humanity cannot see itself as an agent responsible for geological change because of an addiction to certain habits of mind and body. We have to change those habits, even find new addictions, she writes.
This is why it was such a bold, vital and powerful move by the CCA to invite Denise Ferreira da Silva to participate in the Glasgow International festival in the year of the city’s hosting of the Climate Change Conference. Ferreira da Silva is at the forefront of what Fred Moten has called (see his ‘Blackness and Nothingness’ article in the archive materials for this work) ‘the intellectual renewal against academic sterility’. That means that not only does she reject the suffocatingly tight limits of disciplinary definition, but, in her various public operations, this university professor can be experienced as a philosopher, activist, a poet, an artist, an anthropologist, a moral economist, and importantly, as one of the most prominent theorists of blackness in the world today.
A simple notion of Ferreira da Silva’s versatility can be gained by contrasting her work in one of her most well-known published articles with this film made as an art work at the CCA. In the strange, abstrusely titled ‘1(life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞-∞ or ∞/∞’ (pub. e-flux, 2017), Ferreira da Silva exposes the absurdity of the western philosophical tradition of the calculated and calculating human subject by a type of virtuoso performance of excellence with a sarcastic poetics of mathematics, inserting the void of blackness to display that tradition’s brokenness by crunching its gears on matter it cannot value.
This new work Soot Breath at the CCA in collaboration with the artist Arjun Neuman takes a literally new materialist turn by demonstrating our intimacy with the substance which is everywhere the manifestation of an overheating humanity. The blackness of soot, a material with ‘almost zero luminance’, has settled down ubiquitously across the earth, and even whispers to us from the ink printed across our pages. But can we actually know about or of this substance by approaching it as a thing ‘out there’: its sources, processes, signs, effects? In a move which is reminiscent of Helen Cixous’s artistic principle ‘knowing how not to know’ Ferreira da Silva asks us, how we can unthink the world? She means that world as mere abstract from which we extract. Arjuna Neuman in turn talks of a new intimacy with the world which entails living with it rather than subjecting it to our understanding -or as Moten puts it (again in the archived article ) ‘blackness is prior to ontology’. Together in this film, through a meditation on the black stuff, they aim to release it -and the world it covers ‘from procedures and tools that presume everything is an expression of the human.’
The great strength of the CCA as an institution over the years has always been its commitment to an ethos and practice of open source programming. This is a commissioned project for the CCA, specially for Glasgow International, but it is also underpinned and powered by that ethos of offering support, inviting contribution, engaging in dialogue, and providing a platform for who and whatever to push off on their own productions, investigations, creations, interventions, thoughts and meditations. The ‘open’ element to this work is experienced principally through the engagement with the archive and the publication. Available both in-situ and online, this archive brings a wealth of materials: films, interviews, audio clips, texts, artworks and so on. These provide at once insight into the sources of the work (the short, spoken passages from Hortense Spiller for example) and its trajectories; enable and empower the browser to consolidate impressions and further their own investigations and understandings; and bring together in one ‘place’ the innumerable scientific, historical, socio-political and artistic analyses that influence the work.
This last element is at a premium here, for in common with most artists’ films there can be several ways of viewing this work. At worst, it can be experienced as an abstruse set of desultory moving images, inconclusive and directionless. Of course, it depends on what sensibility you bring to the viewing: if the art film is approached with anything like the Cixous principle of ‘knowing how not to know’ then it can arguably be viewed as a pure experience of the durational intensity of time itself. It is undoubtedly a consistently beautiful piece of cinematography with the incessant turn of its coloured patternings across the wide curved screen, and it has a glorious soundtrack ranging from the Choctaw chantings overlaid on a John Lee Hooker blues, to Nina Simone’s ‘Wild is the Wind’ with her soulful elongated vowels represented phonetically in the subtitles. All that is why, arguably, to make the most of this film, and to judge for yourself on its success in the aim of making a visual and aural medium work in promotion of a haptic engagement, it might be best to view the first time in innocence of all its supporting archival apparatus, then subsequently to browse that archive and view the film again in assessment of its address to the questions ‘could tenderness dissolve total violence? Could tears displace total extraction?’
This work ought to be recommended as vital preparation for the coming of COP26 to Glasgow, the city that was the industrial powerhouse of British colonialism. But the last word must go to the delightful publication that accompanies the film: the pink newspaper. This extravagantly unsustainable misuse of resources – it all could have been done as part of the online archive – is not only forgivable, but laudable when the artefact is understood as a pink dehiscent bud spraying the seed of new growth everywhere across a dispirited zone where once there was only pollutant. This is indeed the opening of one source of reimagining the life of the planet: where the cultural expropriation of the Lakota Ghost Shirt is related in its spiritual history to the shameful story of the black slaves in their forced production of the white sugar profit that financed the Glaswegian infrastructure of the black soot blasting industries … and so on. The essays and poetry of Francis McKee, Tiziana Terranova, Sabrina Henry and Nisha Ramaya, all demonstrate in their different styles that everything in the world is up for connection, for discussion, for meditation, for touch, for tears, for tenderness, for poetry -especially in a world that is felt all the more acutely for its faltering.
[Johnny Rodger’s new book Key Essays: Mapping the Contemporary in Literature and Culture featuring a chapter apiece on Denise Ferreira da Silva and on Cathérine Malabou will be published by Routledge in September]
All images credited to Denise Ferreira da Silva & Arjuna Neuman, Soot Breath / Corpus Infinitum. Courtesy of CCA Glasgow. Photography by Alan Dimmick.