Obieg issue 6 - tentative title - Biocentrism or Geophagia?
To a certain extent, human existence has been interpreted as a result of the regenerative properties of the natural world. Although in the developed countries human life with its short span and fragility is perceived to a large extent through the prism of the individual, it is nevertheless hard to overestimate the force of the collective impact of humanity on the environment – especially so, since at some point the development and outcomes of capitalist economy began to favour the turning of a blind eye to this collective causality. This was the first step towards a rapid transformation of the natural environment, or in fact terra-deformation. As George Perec aptly put it, ‘the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors.’1
Since the 16th century, the New World, and in particular South America, has become a new El Dorado for the Western imagination. Ignoring the rights of the indigenous populations, the colonisers adapted the – in their perception, virgin – landscape. In this simplistic take, the plants, natural resources, body and culture of the local population were ripe and ready to be consumed in a variety of ways. The majority of practices, customs and knowledge that were at odds with the logic of the accumulation of capital were losing their raison d’être.
One such manifestation of the indigenous imagination, now almost extinct, was geophagia – or the consumption of soil rich in kaolin, which can partly absorb toxins from plants that have been eaten. The practice stemmed from the very close relationship of both people and animals to the environment in different parts of the globe. The practice has not been entirely eradicated, although today it is perceived as a form of medical pathology. When the colonists first observed this behaviour amongst the indigenous peoples in the Orinoco delta or in the slaves shipped across the Atlantic, they interpreted it as a clear symptom of chronic backwardness, and a further reason to justify the imposition of a Western vision of nature.
Today, a new form of geophagia manifests itself through the insatiable appetite of the developed countries for the raw materials of the global South, resulting in terra-deformation of the region with all the negative social costs that ensue, and on a global scale – in climatic change, hard to ignore. Currently, enormous swathes of the world continue to undergo terra-deformation, acculturation and excesses, in keeping with the capitalist understanding of nature as a store of resources to be exploited for profit – to the maximum degree possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible.
This new issue of Obieg problematises the cases of cause and reaction to the exploitative ‘consumption’ of the natural resources of South America, looking for analogous threads – especially in the artistic exchange between that continent and Central Europe. The working title of the issue refers to the statement made by Alberto Acosta Espinosa – a writer, politician and president of the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly – in 2008, on the occasion of the ratification by the Assembly, following a popular referendum, of a historic Constitution which recognised the Rights of Nature – a first step towards a change of paradigm for humanity . Rather than treating nature as property under the law, the Ecuadorian Constitution’s articles on Rights for Nature acknowledged for the first time ever that nature in all its life forms ‘has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles’2 and that people owe Nature a duty of care. The Constitution thereby acknowledged the fundamental equal right to survival of animate and inanimate matter. The new legislation considerably curtailed exploitation of the natural resources of the country.
What the Ecuadorian Constitution had in common with the equal rights movements that had preceded it, also in Bolivia and Costa Rica, was to incorporate into its thinking about Nature the perspective of the indigenous Quechua population. This includes respect for Nature – for the Quechua, ‘Pachamama’ or the revered goddess Mother Earth, pursuing sumak kawsay, or ‘good living’ – with its connotations of the individual co-existing in harmony with his or her natural environment in the context of harmonious social and cultural collective development. This new emphasis represented a return to the rudimentary civilisational achievements of native Peruvian culture, ravaged by conquest and colonisation and exploited in republican times. Acosta called this trend ‘biocentric socialism’, in which everything connects in an equal co-existence of humankind and the natural world.
There is no doubt that the Rights of Nature are biocentric by definition, however much this stance may be less than entirely compatible with the logic of traditional socialism – which, albeit less anthropocentric than capitalism, has focused on human society. However, after the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century, the continent was only lightly industrialised, with few factories, and in consequence, workers that could be described as an industrial proletariat – the mainstay of traditional socialism – were few and far between, comprising mainly those employed in the oil industry in Ecuador, or in the mines of Brazil and Chile, on comparatively high wages. Thus, uncharacteristically, the new left-wing paradigm found its chief support amongst the ‘Indígenas’ – rural workers, or campesinos, at that time not yet linked through any formal movements, and deeply committed to Mother Earth. This background may perhaps explain why it was in Ecuador that the first legal step was taken on the path of radical transformation in the attitudes to the natural environment as transcending the national borders.
Taking as its starting point the progressive solutions in Ecuador, Bolivia and Costa Rica, Obieg No. 6 takes on board the possible implications of biocentric socialism, looking at the connection points between the history of terra-deformation in South America and the practice of contemporary art and visual culture. We analyse how ‘image production’ in Latin America documents, comments and questions the insatiable appetite for raw materials. The search is on for a new artistic perspective, a new understanding and socially engaged tactics of revitalisation in the face of environmental catastrophe.
Translated by Anda MacBride
1 Georges Perec, Species of Space and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. by John Sturrock, Penguin Books, London 1997, p. 79.
2 Ecuador Constitution 2008, article 71; https://therightsofnature.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/Rights-for-Nature-Articles-in-Ecuadors-Constitution.pdf