Laboratory for Other Worlds Exhibition Syllabus: A completely idiosyncratic and subjective introduction to the Environmental Humanities
“The way we talk about global warming is usually dark and pessimistic…part of the job is showing people new ways to see things, to offer a vision” – Kate Orff
This “syllabus” offers further opportunity for study in the Environmental Humanities, a global intellectual movement that offers a new way to think about the climate and ecological crisis.
Laboratory for Other Worlds is not just an exhibition, it is also a research project. The aim is to raise awareness of the Environmental Humanities through the visual arts. At this moment, across the globe, significant bodies of scientific knowledge exist that point to the dangers of extreme climate to human and more-than-human worlds. Human communities and sensitive non-human wildlife communities rely on the ecologies of the world, yet still our society at large is having difficulty developing cultural and policy responses equal to the challenges faced worldwide. Visual art has the potential to help build the public knowledge necessary for the best possible outcomes in an age of global warming and mass extinction.
French philosopher, anthropologist, and biologist Bruno Latour argues that art has always been needed to translate factual scientific data into political knowledge. Philosopher and anthropologist Donna Haraway has reflected that we need efficient and aesthetic ways to convey complex ecological knowledges to advocate for conditions that lead to multispecies thriving. To help render scientific knowledge in a new way, the project has been executed using an intellectual framework provided by the Environmental Humanities, a global academic and political movement that bridges art, anthropology, biology, and philosophy to offer scientific, cultural, and political solutions to environmental challenges. As Robert S. Emmet and David E. Nye state, “most of the constraints working against environmental change are cultural.” The Environmental Humanities have been developed to place scientific endeavors into a cultural and ethical context, and its tenets are deployed through a feminist, anti-racist, and decolonial lens. Ultimately, this line of thinking is hopeful; it highlights the opportunities available at this moment of climate and ecological creates a roadmap out of the narrowest and most sedimented aspects of enlightenment-based Western thought and proposes a new set of ethics and values designed to balance the limitations of our material Earth with the thriving of all beings. Laboratory for Other Worlds explores the role that the visual arts can have on the public imagination with regards to the dynamics of collaborative survival – in other words, how do we create an ‘other world’?
To use this syllabus, dive into any of the sections to encounter further research material in the form of readings, exercises, podcasts, and lectures.
LEARNING OUTCOMES: the information in this syllabus appears in many different forms, you are encouraged to encounter information however feels most natural to you, whether it is by moving your body, reading, listening, watching, or looking. After encountering this provided material, you may be able to:
Understand the importance of the intelligence, sentience, and value of the more-than human world.
Understand how mutual aid and collaboration are hardwired into the natural world, and how this may allow us to rethink social models beyond our current ‘economic Darwinism’
Understand why art is critical to scientific understanding
Understand how to use your body and physical perception as a partner in understanding new forms of knowledge
Understand why creating conditions for all beings on earth to thrive is the key to human survival in the Anthropocene
Understand how to access further resources to continue your own path of study to find hope, purpose, and ways to be useful during this time of planetary change.
WATCH: these videos cover a range of topics: multispecies play, the role of art in relationship to politics and science, and the complex interweavings of Enlightenment ethics, industrial farming, feminisms, and the land.
LISTEN: each of these podcasts can be listened to while you drive, exercise, walk, or make art. They range in length. I suggest listening to each of these multiple times to catch the nuances and deeper meanings.
LOOK: these artists, exhibitions, and collectives offer fluid and multi-pronged approaches to the knowledges created by the Environmental Humanities.
DO: this group of exercises offers the opportunity to involve your body and your senses as well as your mind and heart. Wear comfortable clothes, relax, and enjoy the changes to your mind and body.
READ: this selection of readings, when taken as a group, introduce some of the most important concepts that inspired the exhibition.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag of Fiction
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Chapter 1: "The Force of Things"
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in The Chtulucene, Chapter 2: "Tentacular Thinking”
Tehseen Noorani and Julian Brigstock, More-Than-Human Participatory Research
Sam Knight, "Annals of Nature, Betting the Farm" from the New Yorker
FURTHER RESOURCES: this bibliography, podcast series, and list of groups you can join to help enact change will help you dive deeper into this content through learning and action
Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble (2016) Duke University Press
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, A Political Ecology of Things (2009) Duke University Press
Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) Random House
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) Princeton University Press
Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995) Four Walls Eight Windows Press
Stephen Herrod Buhner, Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth (2002) Chelsea Green Publishing
Index of Terms
Becoming-With - The Environmental Humanities has been described by Kate Wright for the Duke University Press as an engaged, scholarly response to madness—an attempt to address the systemic pathology of a species disconnected from the conditions of its world. Becoming-with offers a metaphysics grounded in connection, challenging delusions of separation—the erroneous belief that it is somehow possible to exempt ourselves from Earth's ecological community.
Mycorrhizal Network – Mycorrhizal networks are underground networks created by mycorrhizal fungi that connect individual plants together and transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals. Scientists have also found that trees and other plants in wild and sometimes cultivated spaces use these networks to communicate with one another through sophisticated chemical signals.
Holobiome - A holobiome is an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form an ecological unit that in turn, connects to, and is a part of other ecological units and the larger ecology. All species are part of their own, interconnected holobiomes. For example in humans, our holobiome refers to the hundreds of trillions of “guest workers” such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds, and protozoa that live in and on and around each of our bodies. They exist to help our bodies function well and without them we’d have shorter lifespans and less good health. This is true for all species on earth.
Anthropocene - The Anthropocene Epoch is an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.
Corporeal - Having, consisting of, or relating to a physical material body. Much of Western philosophy mostly deals with our minds and the culture that our minds produce, ignoring the effect of our own embodiment, and the embodiment of other species in the world. Materialist philosophy, particularly New Materialism, seeks to consider what it means to be an embodied, corporeal mind.
Body-Territory – An idea inherited from the the Zapitistas, a feminist indigenous South American rebel group that is fighting the effects of capitalism and neoliberal policies that are harming their homeland and lifeways. Their position, which is shared by many First-Nations people, is that for all peoples, the land where our ancestors and family members are buried is an extension of our living bodies. By using a Christian cemetery as a site for research, the artist is considering the ways in which Western culture could benefit from thinking in this way about the dead and their connection to the living.