Some Notes Towards a Manifesto for Artists Working With or About the Living World – by Mark Dion
1. We are not living in a simple age and as artists of the time our work reveals complex contradictions between science and art, between empiricism and the idea, between nature and technology and between aesthetic conventions and novel forms of visualization. Our goals vary. While some may wish to dissolve the contradictions in our social relations to the natural world, others may be interested in analyzing or highlighting them.
2. A: Humans do not stand outside of nature: we, too, are animals, a part of the very thing we have tried to control, whether for exploitation or protection.
B: Just as humanity cannot be separate from nature, so our conception of nature cannot be said to stand outside of culture and society. We construct and are constructed by nature.
3. Our work, rather than being ‘about nature’, can be better characterised as being focused on ideas about nature.
4. Artists working with living organisms must know what they are doing. They must take responsibility for the plants’ or animals’ welfare. If an organism dies during an exhibition, the viewer should assume the death to be the intention of the artist.
5. Artists do not break international wildlife protection laws (unless those laws are irrational).
6. The relationship we have to living organisms is a passionate one. Our subject rules our lives. We live, breathe, and eat our field of investigation. This passion is essential for the production of compelling artwork.
7. Artists who produce work about biology or who collaborate with fungi, plants or animals are not bound by forms or materials. One can produce an argument in many different languages; no form of expression is more perfectly suited to ecological issues. Painting, architecture, landscape design, photography, performance, virtual technology, sculpture, installation, video, horticulture, and agit-prop have all been deployed to great success.
8. Understanding the past’s traditions of nature, in folk culture, science, aesthetics, philosophy and religion, is a source of illumination for the present and also the future. The beliefs of the past form the foundations for contemporary institutions and more often than not, still persist in their own operation.
9. Artists must resist nostalgia. We never do ‘golden age’ history. When we reference the past it is not to evoke ‘the good old days’. Our relation to the past is historical, not mythical.
10. Nature does not always know what is best.
11. We reject the notion of the environment as a perpetually stable and self-regulating system, existing in a constant state of balance. The natural world is far more dynamic and intricate, and it’s history, for at least ten thousand years, has been more entwined with human history than notions of natural balance allow for.
12. The more a notion of nature is touted as free of culture, the more likely it is to be a successful product of it.
13. Animals are individuals, and not carbon copy mechanistic entities. They have cognitive abilities, personalities and flexible behavior, which is not to suggest that they exhibit distinctly human characteristics.
14. Anthropomorphism has long been guarded against in the field of zoology as an impediment to understanding animal behaviour in their own context. While a pitfall in ethology, artists may find the rich tradition of anthropomorphism too powerful a tool to surrender, particularly when probing the boundaries between humans and other animals.
15. ‘The first thing you have to ask is, “Is it scientifically right?” This is still nothing but it is essential’. Ruskin.
16. The ivory tower of science is a ruin. Science is not a pure realm of truth beyond the taints of ideology and business but a field of ideas enmeshed in a power struggle. Increasingly industry and economics dictate the direction and priorities of research. Whilst informed by science, we are ever vigilant against claims of scientific neutrality, and ever skeptical of the ‘official story’ of natural history presented by scientific institutions.
17. Taxonomy, i.e. the classification of the natural world, whilst a useful tool, is a system of order imposed by man and not an objective reflection of nature. Its categories are actively applied and contain the assumptions, values and associations of human society.
18. Our societies can afford wildlife conservation and the preservation of natural habitats.
19. The variety and variability of life is a wonder of infinite complexity. There is no more curious and uncanny topic than the biodiversity that surrounds us. The objective of the best art and science is not to strip nature of wonder but to enhance it. Knowledge and poetry are not in conflict.
20. We believe and affirm that human interaction with the natural world need not result in the degradation and homogenization of natural habitats and landscapes. Cultures have a choice to determine the future of our relationship with the living world, as efficiently as the environment is destroyed it could also be protected