Chus Martinez, photo by Nici Jost

Chus Martinez on Art as a Tool for Future Imagination

With a background in arts and philosophy, Chus Martínez has been working both as a curator and author. She currently leads the Art Institute at the FHNW Academy of Arts and Design in Basel and is designated curator of Ocean Space in Venice, an interdisciplinary platform by TBA21-Academy that focuses on ocean literacy and research through the arts. Chus Martínez strongly believes in the potential of art to drive social change. Her call for a system that is deeply rooted in the values of love, generosity and care, as well as her strong urge for a radical societal transformation closely connects her to the vision and thinking of THE NEW INSTITUTE. For our latest newsletter “How can we see beyond the horizon?” Chus Martínez chose four artists whose works demonstrate the great potential of art to foster social imagination.

Art can be a driving force in addressing issues of social justice. To what extent can it also be a driving force in imagining and sketching out alternative futures?

For too long we have been talking mainly about the aesthetic experience of art. That's too narrow-minded. I think we need to talk about how art provides a sensorial experience. Therefore, a new language is needed. We can call it imagination, but it's actually the emergence of a new epistemology. Art is able to convey not only alternative futures, but also possible scenarios. It can provide an experience that allows us to sense something differently.

Art is able to convey not only alternative futures, but also possible scenarios.

The social innovator Geoff Mulgan argues that art can only contribute to social imagination at a tangent: it can warn, bear witness, and act as a metaphor. However, it cannot serve as a blueprint that actually shapes social realities. Would you agree?

No, I wouldn’t. This argument departs from the perspective that a single discipline can shape social imagination. It’s building up hierarchies of impact. Things do not work that way. It’s all about the complex interaction and complementarity of different disciplines. Even science has a sensorial relationship to data and facts. It may be fact-driven, following a logic of wrong versus right, but some people might rather believe in fictions than facts.

Mulgan further suggests that instead of embodying godlike geniuses, artists could take on the role of a partner.

The cult of the genius is a very Western, patriarchal image. However, this cult was never coined by art itself and is completely obsolete. Artists work collaboratively. They always have, for centuries. We need to discard the idea of the genius. It's a bad metaphor for loneliness and power.

Artists work collaboratively. They always have, for centuries. We need to discard the idea of the genius.

To what extent do the artists you chose for the current issue of THE NEW INSTITUTE newsletter embody that kind of partnership?

I think they all share an idea of companionship rather than partnership. The idea of partnership comes from the industry. But companions to whom? To life, to all forms of knowledge that respect life: knowledge of the ocean and Indigenous epistemologies, for instance. All artists that I am working with are interested in moving away from describing art as Western, hierarchical and gender-determined, presenting somebody as a greater power: the colonial power, the imperial power, the genius, God, the King, the leader. That system starts to break down when we talk about women artists or non-binary artists.

The notion of the genius was meant for a particular form of power, for a hegemony of culture. If you abandon it, you will discover a world of companionship, an intersectional world of epistemologies and ways of knowing that interact under different premises, which are not based on a discipline telling other disciplines what to do, how to behave, what to feel.

Ana Vaz, Há Terra! (Video still), 2016

Inspired by Oswald de Andrade’s film “Cannibal Manifesto” (1928), “Há Terra!” is more than a film: it is a substance to feel a violence that must be undone. These images work like words that allow the earth to raise its voice and talk about pain, but also about beauty. The camera is an eye that mirrors our human perspective and critically asks if we will continue ignoring the laws of life. Ana Vaz’s films are made of material feelings, and those feelings become ideas that, hopefully, will never abandon us.

Looking at the video works of artist Ana Vaz, how might she offer the kind of companionship you describe?

It’s always difficult to talk on behalf of an artist, but I’d say that an interesting perspective in her work is that she tries to imagine the camera eye as not merely human, rather as an eye that corresponds to some sort of creature that is closer to nature, between the human and other forms of life. For a long time, technology has only been concerned with imagining our superpowers, our super-eye. Cameras can see things that we cannot see. They are extensions of our organs. It is a more sensitive and soft understanding of technology as something vulnerable. We don’t look at things like the ocean, the sky, the air, the atmosphere to control them or to produce data for scientific analyses. We do it because we want to sense it. We want to feel closer to it and discover new ways of living with nature.

We don’t look at things like the ocean, the sky, the air, the atmosphere to control them or to produce data for scientific analyses. We do it because we want to sense it.

In a recent essay titled “The Age of Love,” you call for a system of love, of generosity, and of care that could create a non-violent form of art. To achieve it, you suggest, we would need to leave all traditions behind and embrace the unknown. How could a radical transformation such as this come about?

When I was a student, they were telling us that we should not look at non-binary forms of knowledge because they erase what is fundamental to produce judgment. I’ve been educated under the premise that you need to draw a line between the individual and the things you observe. And that all cultures producing these non-binary ideas – Buddhism, Shintoism, African religions – were in danger of animism. But what if animating the real is what we need in order to protect it? It might be that all the tools we use to define separation are tools of violence. This leads us to the tradition of “Amor Mundi” as Hannah Arendt called it. I am not proposing to go back to ancient cultures. We need to modify behaviors in a radical way, going back to generosity and love. Not romantic love, not passionate love. It's a different type of love. You could call it force. We need to produce non-binary systems, which are fundamental for a different type of bio-politics. We need to enter realms that are very scary for us – because everything we have learned to survive is about extraction and taking in order to protect ourselves. We need to reverse this way of thinking on all levels: the level of education, the level of gender, the level of economy. For many people it may sound naive, but it's worth the exercise.

You also argue that this system produces its own results, without analysis or revolution. What kind of human do you think is needed to create such a transformative energy?

One that is able to accept the pain of losing. Reaching equal genders, for instance, implies to renounce and lose something. And we need to be able to give in order to gain. We need to produce a new dynamic between spaces of the private and the public, of the individual and the collective, of conflict and the non-violence. It's all about creating a new dynamic regarding the spaces that you occupy, the spaces where you think, where you operate.

Within this unified world of love and generosity, you suggest that art and ethics do not only coexist but cooperate. The works of artist Lin May Saeed exemplify this cooperation quite well. To what extent does hers embody a cooperative and non-violent approach?

When I first met Lin, she was making sculptures out of styrofoam. She was talking about ecological concerns and her radical view on the rights of animals, and I was deeply impressed. Her works are so delicate. In a way she’s giving a new life to this plastic material that cannot be recycled and that can hardly be carved or manipulated, transferring it from the world of toxic garbage to the world of art. It’s not only about recycling. It is about giving toxic waste a new symbolic, neutralized form that will not hurt anybody. Neutralizing the toxic. Neutralizing violence.

Lin May Saeed, Landscape with Ant Hills, 2021

Some images are magical. They inspire us to reflect on a golden past, one in which the human and the non-human are embraced equally and united as one. Imagine paradise were carved out of toxic material — namely polystyrene, otherwise known as styrofoam, a highly resilient plastic. This is what Lin May Saeed does in her work: she preserves the lethal function of this toxic material and demonstrates how art can, at least aesthetically, revive the symbiotic contract between humans and nature.

Looking at your close collaboration with the TBA21-Academy in Venice and the image of the artist as collaborator, what can the arts and sciences learn from each other?

So many things. When I started working closely with scientists, I realized that there are spaces of freedom in the arts that they don't have. That’s why several scientists I worked with perceive our cultural structures as a shelter to express some of their concerns. In their working environment, only a few are talking about equality or post-coloniality in relation to funding projects or finding a solution to a problem. When they delve into a more speculative realm, they are no longer welcome. There’s where the arts can offer something. And they offer us a way of thinking about facts and fiction that they want to challenge as well.

It is about giving toxic waste a new symbolic, neutralized form that will not hurt anybody. Neutralizing the toxic. Neutralizing violence.

You work closely with artist Taloi Havini. The exhibition of hers that you curated will open in a few weeks at TBA21’s Ocean Space in Venice. Could you give us a glimpse of what to expect?

Taloi crated a platform surrounded by 22 loudspeakers that reflect upon the question of sound and how it has been used to connect people with events of nature. You will hear a composition played by Ben Hakalitz, a fantastic drummer of the Pacific, and by Mario Celestino, you will hear a flute, an idiophone, microphones recording sounds from the ocean and the ancestors. Taloi uses these sources of sound to produce a sonic environment: You feel the clouds, the island, the communication among the islands, among the people that make sound and broadcast sound through the winds to the next island. You start perceiving, breathing, you go under water. And all of a sudden, you are turning into a fish swimming in the ocean. In the end, you return from the ocean as a spirit, as an ancestor. It’s kind of a trip.

Taloi Havini, Answer to the Call, 2021

Capturing the sea, Taloi Havini’s works embrace Indigenous ways of knowing the world and of relating to nature. Havini closely collaborates with scientists, and her art provides a different, very sensorial access to knowledge and to ways of imagining future societies. Her works are full of hope, and envision a world of cooperation and reunion. Taloi Havini’s first solo exhibition in Europe, which features her new sound installation “Answer to the Call”, will be shown at the Ocean Space in Venice beginning on May 3, 2021.

Embracing this non-binary perspective of a unified world where art and ethics cooperate, you further suggest perceiving nature not only as subject, but as art. How does this perception change the relation of humans to nature?

Most of the time we relate to manmade spaces and our artifacts within those spaces. However, it would be interesting to think of the ocean or to think of nature as a cultural space, imagining technologies that are able to survive rain and water, so we don't need the type of electricity or walls as we know them. I’ve been dreaming about exhibitions in the forest. Simply presenting nature with something that directly matches it would enable a different kind of thinking that is a little more respectful towards nature. Basically, all collections are patrimonies, and I think artifacts which are not ours should be returned to those who made them and who are attached to them. We could concentrate on other types of cultural entanglement, on ethical and cultural entanglement.

Would you say artist Claudia Comte's work is already a step in this direction?

She has been working a lot in the forest and experimenting with planting cactus-like sculptures in coral reefs, so that the corals can regenerate. Her work is closely linked to the research of a lab of coral morphologists. Apparently, corals do not regenerate on simple platforms, but they react to certain forms. It’s as if the corals were formal artists themselves. It’s like a dialogue between the corals and the artist as both share the same concern – the concern of form.

Claudia Comte, The Big Marble Bumpy Grumpy, 2019

Claudia Comte has an uncommon way of loving trees. Can a given material and form produce the conditions for us to reflect on the intelligence of nature? Comte’s use of wood, marble and form embodies our anthropomorphic tendencies. Her sculptures feel familiar, and allow us to reflect upon the need to care for our natural habitat. Ultimately, perceiving nature as art and as cultural space allows us to envision new possibilities for co-existence.


Ana Vaz, Há Terra!, 16mm transfer to HD, 2016 © Ana Vaz and Spectre Productions

Lin May Saeed, Landscape with Ant Hills, styrofoam, steel, acrylic paint, wood, 139x210x30cm, 2021 © Jacky Strenz

Taloi Havini, Answer to the Call, 2021. Exhibition view The Soul Expanding Ocean #1: Taloi Havini, Ocean Space, Venice. Commissioned by TBA21–Academy and co-produced with Schmidt Ocean Institute, co-founded by Wendy Schmidt. Photo: gerdastudio

Claudia Comte, The Big Marble Bumpy Grumpy, White Michelangelo Marble, 280 x 191.2 x 83.4 cm, Lustwarande '19 - Delirious, De Oude Warande, Tilburg (NL*, 2019 © Gunnar Meier

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