A Letter to Donna Haraway: Alix Villanueva

To Donna Haraway,

Perhaps if you could just hear me out, and extend a tentacle?

Allow me to impart you with this image: a hospital gown draped across a wooden chair, taken off – not discarded – and strewn as though it had floated down to rest upon the chair, as though the body beneath it had vanished and left behind this garment, stained and frayed… Peer into the long triangular pockets and the curled, finger-like leaves of verbena beckon. The mallow bled, the fabric tinged with spots of mauve, remnants of an immersive state.

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‘…hair strewn and tangled feet…’ Tent Gallery, Edinburgh, 2018.

These are the leftovers of a ritual… and an attempt of mine at storytelling an entanglement.

Trying to understand the lasting aches of chronic pain led me to an enquiry into holisticity and ancient sources of knowledge. Modern medicine rarely offers solutions for chronic pain and most sufferers are left to deal with their affliction and conduct their own enquiries. These mysterious, seemingly causeless and incurable ailments make apparent other ways of living. Because nothing shows up on our x-rays and our CAT scans, we quickly learn that positivist-image-making-technology will not cure us this time; it unsettles what we are taught about the world. Without a doubt, science is elemental to understanding and explaining a large part of the world, but to me it feels increasingly insufficient, unsatisfactory, incomplete as a tool to story-tell the world.

In the ritual described at the start of my letter to you, the wearer of the robe enters the cold sea, toes curled in frozen sand. The experience is not a pleasant one – the waters of Cramond are cold and polluted despite the attractive morning light. The ceremonial robe, crafted by her own hands, drapes around her body, brushing the sandy floor with each step and getting heavier as the pockets fill with water. From afar, she looks like a folkloric figure, some cursed goddess of the sea, a witch caught out in waves…

My legs ache, my hips, my pelvic muscles… this is my ritual. The woman in the waves is I.

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Still from filmed ritual. ‘A Healing at Cramond’, Cramond, 2017.

In Scottish and Irish literature, the Cailleach Bhéara, the witch figure, the hag, the healer, does not offer direct remedies to ailments – no direct fix. Rather, she points out the disharmonies between this world and the Otherworld, the sacred natural. Such disharmonies are suggested to be the root cause of ill health. With that in mind, the chronic pain suffered by one becomes ‘cosmoecological.’ Rather than existing as one individual person’s suffering, it engages “multiple beings, gods, animals, humans, living, and dead, each bearing the consequences of the other’s ways of living and dying” (Despret and Meuret 26). Taking part in this ritual was a way of storytelling this very elemental shift in my thinking, where positivism loosens its grip to give space to entanglement, uncertainty, and asynchronicity, where ecological witch figures from Celtic traditions, ancient rites and healing, mix with bodily experiences of pain, mix with social, economic and thus environmental histories of a post-industrial Cramond.

As you know, the contemporary moment is saturated with uncertainty – the outcomes of this crisis are very difficult to predict. As I’ve explained, for me, positivism loses its prime position as a ‘way of knowing’ – I rally behind the move from enlightenment to entanglement… Embracing the queerness of life, the strange, the haunted, becomes more attractive as a way of navigating the world. In my work, ghosts come to rest on calico or paper – they allude to blasted landscapes, obscene wastefulness, extinction events … They are the ghosts of “bad death, death out of time,” casualties of the “great projects of destruction” that enable human Progress (Gan et al., G7). The palette is dark. Drawing on degrees of black, the strange organic shapes seem to curl, gesture and engulf.

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A Shoreline Haunting. Ink on calico. ‘Ropes of Sand’ An Lanntair, Stornaway, 2017.

 

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Three Ghosts of the Anthropocene. Charcoal, coffee grounds, recycled fat, carrageenan, paper, graphite. “…hair strewn and tangled feet…” Tent Gallery, Edinburgh, 2018.

They are the ghosts who are unable to move along. On paper, they are large and exhausted, greasy from having been conceived in buckets of fat. They emerge from excess and waste; the buckets were encountered by the bins outside a ‘chippy’ and the ochre is produced by the grounds of my own coffee- drinking habit (which in itself funds ecological devastation and poorly remunerated labour). They do not want to be forgotten; they rub onto the clothes and hands of the careless handler. They resist capture, cannot be framed, and will eventually rot. They also elicit wonder, however. Attentiveness enables one to see they are not invented shapes; in some more than others, the acute observer might recognise the uncanny shape of seaweed specimens, momentarily peering across the chasm of translation.

As artist and art critic Suzi Gablik notes, “our [Western] culture has failed to generate a living cosmology that would enable us to hold the sacredness and interconnectivity of life in mind” (82). Lore, enchantment and storytelling emerge as increasingly necessary in order to maintain wonder in other beings and our entanglement with them. Here I quote YOU and insist that this is necessary for “practic[ing] better care of kind-as assemblages (not species one at a time)” (Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chtulucene” 161). In an attempt to engage with these notions, I have been exploring the term “cosmoecology,” which I mentioned earlier. For me, it is a yet-to-be-defined term very much embedded in assemblage theory. Coined by Despret and Meuret in their paper “Cosmoecological Sheep and the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet,” the word alludes to “multispecies world-making” in which beings “make living arrangements simultaneously for themselves and for others” (Tsing, 22)(a fundamental principle of symbiosis and reciprocity), in which each being’s way of living and dying has an impact on another’s. Charting such cascades of causality requires us to cycle through the different scales at play within assemblages. I use this a framework within my art in order to allow my own personal singular experience of the world to co-exist with larger landscapes, and even larger notions of the cosmos (mythology, gods, folklore, ghosts, death, after- death…). The work is fraught with my personal relationship with different people, plant species, ghosts and other beings that create these earthly assemblages.

In How Do You Do Bobby Blue, for example, I narrate my encounters with poor mental health and physical health of the beings I care for and about. The intimate storytelling of my relationships with friends, past lovers and facets of myself act as pollination for the plants around which the poem is structured; “storytelling as pollination” (How Do You Do Bobby Blue). Each chapter is centered on four plants with healing properties (comfrey, lavender, wild garlic and nettles) around which I find myself gravitating towards time and again within my life. Of course, my knowledge and use of the medicinal plants are not just my own – they emerge out of long-lasting inter-generational relationships between humans and the plants, knowledge procured from “the legacy” of “women who had overcome the logic of domination” (How Do You Do Bobby Blue). The whole poem is enveloped between a Prologue and an Epilogue in which the very real and recurring presence (or… absence?) of a suicidal “ghost” (How Do You Do Bobby Blue) reminds us of the precarious position in which we find ourselves, and our fundamental need for care.

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Extract from, How Do You Do Bobby Blue. Handmade paper, lavender, comfrey, ink. As part of a commission by the POD, Coventry, 2017.

The varying sense of scale in which I work is also felt in “Meet Me at the Little Bridges of Sleep,” which thematically explores the concept of sleeping in the context of the peat bog. Due to the unsheltered nature of the peatlands, it is hard to conceive of a place where one might want to lie down. There is hardly any shelter available for large mammals such as humans. My installation celebrates the hidden eroticisms of the bog, its carnivorous plant life, its out-of- the-way-ness, its discrete lichens (which themselves are symbiotic associations!) and the beauty that arises from the act of looking closer. The mise-en-scene is domestic— a worktop onto which moss dust and gold thread have been swept in a pile, and handmade paper stacked below. On the floor, a wool blanket lays crumpled: someone has been here. Yet every object calls to the bog: the wool egg recalling the strands of wool you find torn off by the heather tops, the lichen embroidery detail on the blanket, the moor grasses in the paper…

My latest installation, ‘Gleaning Ghosts,’ also constitutes a part of my cosmoecological research. It examines and speaks to the ghosts in my life, mourns them, but also attempts to connect with them and understand their importance. Death is integral to the recycling of nutrients and a healthy ecosystem. Deaths can be fruitful zones of flourishing, such as ‘whale falls’… but as mentioned above, there can also be ‘bad deaths’. These produce ghosts that don’t sit easy and give us a heavy sensation on the chest, “like the weight of a big rock” (from “Gleaning Ghosts”).

I don’t believe death to be an isolated event; it can happen to one being, but ultimately it has myriad consequences, from the emotional repercussions, to the extinction of a species, to the degradation of whole ecosystems, to the loss of future generations, all the way down to the strange, disconnected situation of the gleaner, who has to sort through the possessions of the dead and decide the fate of these now-ownerless objects. I have been that gleaner.

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What attracts the eye when you enter the gallery is perhaps the weight of the bed-wide, black velvet pillow. Its density is both sinister and inviting. Directly above it hangs a sort of circular map, a shape not unlike the mappa mundi. It is circular, stained in browns and reds, considerably dirtier near the outside and accentuated with a hole at its centre. In fact, it is a skirt, hung upside down: another ceremonial garment… In the corner of the gallery, twenty strips of fabric hang above stones.

This time, the ritual also took place in Cramond, but consisted of a long walk along the river Almond and onto Cramond Island, against the rising tide. Along the way, I picked up stones and tied them to my skirt, getting heavier and heavier with the weight of interconnectivity. The act carries dark undertones, as I find myself walking towards the water, pulled down by the rocks.

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ritual photos by Bejoy Sanjeev, Cramond, 2018.

It is not a coincidence. Many of the ghosts that appear within the exhibition are tragic and have taken their own lives.

The skirt, too long for my legs, becomes the perfect canvas for mapping the act, allowing the dynamic relationship between land, ghosts, ritual and self to materialise visually. For Weller, “rituals rise from the land” and “reflect the entire context of the people’s lives— the terrain, the animals and plants, the communal wounds, the patterns of weather, the stories and myth, the collective suffering, the beliefs” (77). Perhaps, for this reason rituals are particularly suited to cosmoecological studies.

 

On the other side of the gallery sits a large concertina book. Its cream pages are filled with images from the ritual, personal writing, but also gleaned objects, academic writing and pages from my favourite work of fiction. It feels like a scrapbook: an intimate curation of objects that don’t immediately belong.

 

Against the white wall, on a low table lined with black velvet, strange brushes are displayed. They are not typical brushes and are devoid of practicality: too fragile for holding paint, and too soft for scrubbing. They are power-tools nonetheless. They were crafted from beach-combed objects and locks of my own hair, cut off in an attempt at regaining control.

There’s an undeniable domesticity to the installation, with its cream wall, soft lighting, extensive use of fabric, pillow, brushes, book… But the skirt, with its earthly stains brings with it an act of being ‘in-process-with’ the outside world, the landscape, and possibly even also tipping into the realm of the sacred.

 

Perhaps, the point of this letter is to thank you for the term “tentacular” (Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chtulucene” 160). The tentacle is what enables me to story-tell these assemblages I find myself being part of. My narrative tentacles slip in and out of the first-person, intimate and detailed to examine the dynamic landscapes that my existence is part of, and even beyond that to meddle with relevant cosmologies. Perhaps, I am indeed “entangl[ing] myriad inter-active entities-in-assemblages including the more- than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus,” as you so experimentally put it (Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chtulucene” 160). By enlisting ghosts, healers, witches and ancient knowledge, I hope to begin mapping a useful cosmoecology that might not necessarily make the world clearer but instead foster wonder and care.

Donna, in truth, I believe I navigate this world too shyly… it is hard to turn theory into praxis and apply it to all our modes of existence. I start with my art, but must soon undertake a “pilgrimage of sorts” (from “On Cosmoecology and Resisting the Ability to be Consumed”) to live life through my art and art through my life.

Thank you for welcoming me into the Chthulucene. Yours truly,
Alix

 

www.alixvillanueva.com

 

Despret, V. and Meuret, M. “Cosmoecological Sheep and the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.” Journal of Environmental Humanities, vol. 8, no.1, 2016, pp. 24-36.

Gablik, S. The Reenchantment of Art. Thames & Hudson, 1991.
Gan, E, Tsing, A, Swanson, H, and Bubandt, N. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghostsand Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minnesota University Press, 2017.
Haraway, D. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.”Journal of Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.

Haraway, D. Staying with the Trouble. Duke University Press, 2016.

Ó Crualaoich, G. The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer. Cork University Press, 2006.

Tsing, A. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015.

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