【by Chun-Mei Chuang, June 2021】
Multiplicity in Solitude
Taiwan entered another page of the Covid-19 pandemic with a surge of community transmission on 15 May 2021, after the rest of the world had undergone several waves of the disease for the past year and a half. Since then, the nationwide Level 3 alert has been extended to July. Thus, those of us located in Taiwan finally start to feel the weight of the pandemic, with in-person conferences canceled, libraries and museums closed, and no unnecessary social gatherings.
But what is necessary, if not our sociability in a complicated, creative and unconventional sense? Art as such a mode of sociability tends to exceed the ordinary forms of getting together, requiring us to dive into and navigate out of solitude. Solitude is not the antithesis of sociability. In solitude, one is making a difference in relation or “cutting together/apart”—to borrow Karen Barad’s phrase on diffraction—withdrawing from the common world and going inward in order to move forward with one another when the time comes (Barad 2014).
Solitude is a diffraction pattern generated within. One is always already a multiplicity, perhaps even more so in solitude. Multiplicity is the shared foundation of sociability and solitude, and one of the essential conditions of planetary life. The most pertinent lesson from the pandemic is that we need a radical societal change that sustains a healthier multispecies relationship. When the world seems on pause, we do not cease becoming with the world, and we by no means suspend worlding in planetary multispecies collaboration. If any, we are beckoned to enact this collaboration more consciously and beneficially.
The inaugural issue of Critical Asia Archives, Society Must Go On! [COVID-19 issue], covered the multifaceted significance of the novel coronavirus and the virus in general. Now we see the pandemic in a fresh light with the constant emergence of new variants and the tricky nature of immunity. Scientists are just beginning to grasp the immense role viruses, the most abundant biological entities on Earth, have played in evolutionary processes (Pradeu & Dupré 2016). The viral creativity represents the intertwined coevolution of life and technē on the planet Earth. There is almost an artistic dimension to it, bringing something innovative into the world, if we are willing to move beyond the dichotomy between nature and culture. Indeed, the billion-year war between viruses and bacteria has brought forth the bacterial immune system called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), one of the most ingenious techniques that have inspired humans to develop the alarmingly ever-expanding practice of artificial genetic editing (Forterre & Prangishvili 2009; Koonin & Wolf 2009).
A confocal microscope image of mouse retina sparkling with fluorescent molecules. (Credit/ Kenyoung Kim, Wonkyu Ju and Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego. NIH funding from National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIGMS, USA)
Thinking with Art
The pandemic has forced humans to retreat to the private sphere, and somehow isolate themselves from others, and shift their connections further into the virtual spaces. We live in an age of social distancing that enables a specific distance for the aesthetic gaze, filtering the fluid borders between the private and the public and facilitating the transformation in between. Along with the weight of the pandemic, some of us are sensing the gravitational pull of art amid the pandemic, reassessing the potential space for regenerative politics.
In his reflective essay “Aesthetic Distance of Art Appreciation under the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Chih-Yung Aaron Chiu explores the influence of internet technologies on art appreciation, the critical challenges digital imaging capabilities have posed to the visual field, and the far-ranging significance of image politics in cyberspace. As Chiu says, digitized artworks provide us a new form of viewing and experiencing art, an array of new ways of “being-in-the-world.”
Fortunately, we were able to have many art exhibitions held before entering the first lockdown in Taiwan. In her poetic prose “What If We Are Baser: Regarding Subzoology, 2020 Taiwan Biennial,” Pei-Kuei Tsai delivers a first-person subindividual account of the sensational multispecies crisis presented in Subzoology: 2020 Taiwan Biennial, 17 Oct. 2020-28 Feb. 2021, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (NTMoFA), Taichung. In the biennial, a local Buddhist connotation was added as a colorful filter to translate the recurrent ecological theme into a series of multispecies ethics lessons. Tsai’s concise text resonates with the flowing subzoological landscape of the show.
Bo-Yi Shen’s “How about Siding with the Object for a Change?” touches on the multispecies imagination in another major biennial, Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet, opened from 21 Nov. 2020-14 Mar. 2021, Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), Taipei. Shen’s analysis focuses on a single multimedia installation on the section Planet Terrestrial: Interspecies Cinematic Encounters (collaborated by Jean-Michel Frodon, Rasha Salti, and design team COLLECTIVE), especially how the museum-goers/viewers are unknowingly incorporated into the dynamic process that constructs an ecological concerto on site.
Paul Jobin’s essay “The Art of War and Diplomacy at the Taipei Biennial—With Latour and Schmitt” carefully weaves together two senses of geopolitics—one in terms of the strategic position of Taiwan in East Asia, and in relation to China and the United States, another regarding Bruno Latour’s notion of Gaia-politics which is the conceptual framework for Taipei Biennial 2020. To put geo back to geopolitics means to pay attention to specific geological conditions and climatic characteristics, in this case, of the island of Taiwan as one of the potential Critical Zone observatories. The linkage between theory and art is nonlinear and already mediated through varied material and terrestrial factors.
Ding-Liang Chen’s “Beyond the Global Vision” looks into the potential critical projects of two Taiwanese artists in Taipei Biennial 2020, Paiwan designer/weaver Aruwai Kaumakan, and filmmaker Yu-Hsin Su who is currently based in Berlin. As Chen points out, Su’s and Aruwai’s works respectively create potential “terrestrial modes of existence” through two seemingly very different techniques; moreover, they demonstrate distinct styles of positioned collaboration that bring forth specific collective practices of viewing and habitation.
Jau-lan Guo’s “Reciprocity in Activation and Inertia” presents a version of experimental art historiography that considers curatorial practices as an act of art historical writing. An exhibit is more than showcasing a collection of artworks; it is “an open process of knowledge production.” Guo knits her discourse with reference to a special exhibition co-curated by Guo and colleagues, On the Passage of a Few Persons through a Brief Moment in Time, 24 Apr. 2021-25 July 2021, Museum of National Taipei University of Education (MoNTUE), Taipei. The museum is now temporarily closed due to the level 3 Covid alert. The detours of the exhibition and many others show how art activities unexpectedly participate in their historical environment.
Living through Art
Between the so-called real world and imagination, contingent digressions lead to new territories, separately and together. The gravity of art consolidates around the coevolution of life and technē, human or nonhuman, organic or cybernetic. In the time of Covid-19, when humans are hailed to recalibrate their path on a planetary scale, art can be an embodied process of worlding multispecies cohabitation.
Our flesh and blood are of the planet; they are products of the deep historical coevolution and ingredients of the transformative worlding project. We have to reset our whole beings and realign with others in envisioning a trans-species future. However, the shifting relation between self and nonself is neither relative nor dualistic; it is profoundly situated in the multilayered network of metabolic feedback loops dynamically constituting planetary life on Earth. In the end, life with consciousness is no less than an affective art, which is integral to the complex evolution of planetary life.
As Elizabeth Grosz suggests, art is necessarily future-oriented:
[Art is] above all the transformation of the materials from the past into resources for the future, the sensations not available now but to be unleashed in the future on a people now ready to perceive and be affected by them. (Grosz 2012: 103)
To be sure, art projects with a future orientation would require a political restructuring in the case of human animals. For Grosz, “art is of the animal,” in an evolutionary sense (Grosz 2012). Animal models in science and art are relatable for humans due to our animality, an integral part of human identity.
Nonetheless, we must note that art is also of planetary life, inevitably traversing any taxonomic categories. Significantly, during the pandemic, we as human life-forms more than ever are struggling to hold on to the full onto-epistemological consequences of molecular technologies that allow us to observe and measure nanoscopic biological entities like viruses as well as their ecological agency and artistic potentiality (Chuang 2020). The ecological turn of art and its re-politicization compose an intricate part of our co-evolutionary process on the planet. Consequently, we need a creative method of rewriting our history on every scale possible.
Art is of planetary life. Every living being is a “consortial entity,” so is the never-ending planetary life process named Gaia, as Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan assert. In Gaia’s restless vitality, “living and nonliving matter, self and environment are inextricably interconnected” (Sagan and Margulis 1987: 16). Our artistic perception and practice are involuted in the evolutionary interconnectedness on Earth. Therefore, one of the optimal routes to have a better grip on the multispecies diffractive detours is by living through art.
Chun-Mei Chuang, Soochow University, Taiwan
Barad, K. (2014). “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart.” Parallax, 20.3, 168–87.
Chuang, C. (2020). “A note on the postcolonial implosion of the Anthropocene and the Virocene.” Society Must Go On! [COVID-19 issue]. Critical Asia Archives. Retrieved from https://caarchives.org/a-note-on-the-postcolonial-implosion-of-the-anthropocene-and-the-virocene/
Forterre, P., & Prangishvili, D. (2009). “The great billion-year war between ribosome- and capsid-encoding organisms (cells and viruses) as the major source of evolutionary novelties.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1178, 65–77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04993.x
Grosz, E. (2012). Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press.
Koonin, E. V., & Wolf, Y. I. (2009). “Is evolution Darwinian or/and Lamarckian?” Biology Direct, 4, 42. https://doi.org/10.1186/1745-6150-4-42
Pradeu, T., Kostyrka, G., & Dupré, J. (2016). “Understanding viruses: Philosophical investigations.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 59, 57–63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2016.02.008
Sagan, D., & Margulis, L. (1987). “Gaia and the evolution of machines.” Whole Earth Review, 55, 15–21.