Towards an Aesthetics of the Real

Towards an Aesthetics of the Real: A Practice of Problems and Propositions

Our practice considers ecological questions and actions, and as such, our working method crosses borders with humans (scientists, economists, philosophers, tradespeoples) and non-humans (oceans, bacteria, laws, fishing nets, fossils, music lyrics) – using experimental tools to produce genuinely emergent outcomes.

Underpinning these tools are provocations that we believe have pushed SPURSE into a space of paradigm-making. Call this our manifesto disguised as a “How To” for ecological production, or more critically, consider this an urgent plea to rethink our roles as artists, and more as co-composers of meaning with the real.

The world exceeds us. We have the power to transform and destroy many forms of life and untold ecosystems, but not the world. The world is what radically exceeds us. It is a world that we are of and that will always surprise us — evolving, changing, destroying, entangling, and becoming otherwise. Question: How do we work to co-compose new futures with a world that so exceeds us?

Rethink the Commons. We often define the commons as a resource that is owned by all – water, forests, and the atmosphere being classical examples of this. But these cannot be reduced to resources, as this only instrumentalizes the world into falsely distinct things, and by extension, shapes our resource management practices by distinct species. This is the fallacy of the tragedy of the commons, and bears no resemblance to an ecosystem’s complex network of many things. How do we rethink an emergent entangled commons?

Drop the concept of Nature. The so-called “natural world” has persisted as radically separate from “our” cultural/technological world, that the concept of nature is not only misleading, it endangers the potential for new paradigms. It posits that there is a world “out there,” removing us from the world we claim we engage with. No matter how we rework the term, the conceptual logic of this divisive two-worlds model remains. The reality is that we are of the world, and it is time for our thinking to move beyond the concept of Nature. Question: How should we speak of this one world?

Consider every thing real. Everything has an effect. Everything is affecting everything else. Nothing stays within the neat categories of the natural, or the cultural. Given this, we need a way of thinking and working that considers the reality of every thing as equally real: books, microbes, weather systems, fashion trends, unconscious desires, boats, swarms of dolphins, and nuclear waste. Could we not simply say: If it has an effect, then it is real? And what has an effect is active, with a type of agency. Question: How do we meet the everything?

Things are bigger than we think. Things – whatever they are – do not show up alone or neatly. Nothing exists in isolation. They are part of multiple worlds and have multiple paradoxical logics. In other words, they are bigger when we consider the shape of their becoming. Trying to find a thing’s singular essence is to deny its linkages with other things. How the ocean folds deeply into the land, for instance. In addition: things exist at multiple scales. One fish is a thing and a school of fish is also a thing. A species is a thing. So too is the ecosystem of which they are a part. Fishing is also a thing. One level might be dependent on another level — but each is its own thing. Question: How then do we render the shape of a thing?

Every thing is a relation. Things are what they are because of their relational network. The effect of a thing is relational. The relation is in itself a unique thing. This is a dynamic and emergent logic. We need to ask less what something “is,” and more what it can do – how it links and what emerges from these new relations. Question: How do we develop tools to engage with a fully relational thing?

Engagement is indirect. It is imagined that direct action with a thing is best – a one-to-one causal relation. But this is an illusion, stemming from a false desire for purity. Nothing happens directly; everything occurs through alliances, entanglements, tools, bodies, and concepts. We all need mediators and modulators. And these mediators do not always know their intention to engage until they reach a new emergent relational state. Question: How do we create forms of engagement with the unknown?

Knowledge is darkness. The classical image of knowledge as shining light into the world’s darkness only gets us closer to understanding the things that already exist. But we have to be just as curious and actively engaged in what is to come, what is emerging from relational reconfigurings, what has never before been. This requires working/experimenting within darkness. Question: How do we induce forgetting what we already know?

Apparatus: How does one act? What is a tool? Here the concept of an apparatus is of use. It is more than a seemingly neutral tool that does one’s bidding and it is more than simply social logics materialized. An apparatus is, as Karen Barad notes, “specific material reconfigurings of the world that do not merely emerge in time but iteratively reconfigure spacetimematter as part of the ongoing dynamism of becoming.” Our apparatuses shape a world co-emerging with them. We need a new ethics of tool making and apparatus forming.

Entanglement: A composite of unlike things. An assemblage: The evaporation plus crystallization of sea water into salt plus navigation techniques, deep ocean currents, temperature gradients, plus cod, plus religious practices plus metallurgy plus organization of Atlantic slavery, etc. and ones has the early North Atlantic fisheries. The entanglement has agency. One works at the level of the entanglement. Perhaps this too suggests an alternative model of the commons?

Make new habits. New ideas, concepts and paradigms are fine, but how do they get actualized? Consider the life of a habit. Before a habit is a habit, it is an emerging action that does not yet know its outcome. Our actions are habituated during stable states, becoming habits that we use to modulate the world. How a fishing net is made, how schools of fish migrate, how the sun is transformed by phytoplankton – these are habits. We need to work directly at the level of habit production. Question: How?

Action = Creation ≠ Representation. If everything is active, then all actions are creative. Creations exceed representative logics. They are creations produced by and producing actions. Representations are false claims that we can stake a neutral position outside of a system. Taken seriously, this changes a lot. Question: How do we critique these creations without becoming representational?

We are co-composers of and with reality. Life/action is a question of composition. Co-composition — because we are never acting alone. We co-compose with the strangest of things — bacteria, ocean currents, pharmaceuticals circulating in the water supply, cell phones and fashion trends. This makes reality a question of aesthetics. It is an aesthetics of singularities, alliances, composings, apparatuses, and systems. There is an art to this that is not of, for or from the human alone. Question: How do we reshape our polis to welcome the arts of the masses — our human and non-human co-composers?

As things come and go, what remains (a little longer) are the conditions that make them. A logic of composition only makes sense if one cannot assume there is an essence to something that exists prior to a thing coming into being. Things come about because of a semi-stable set of internal and external forces not because of some essence. A world composed of fields of forces and processes individuating at multiple scales and temporalities. Question: How do we work at the level of individuation and not simply at the level of individuals?

We need a logic and ethics for the massive scales and emergent nature of modern things. Most of our habits are designed for short term actions in a face to face situation. But we are making new things that far exceed this. Question: How do we co-compose at these massive scales?