By Simon Olmetti is an essay exploring the themes of the Queer/in/g Nature Exhibition
The concept of nature is slippery and complicated, particularly in the Anthropocene. It also represents a thorny issue for queer people, as it has been used as an excuse for discrimination for a long time. Indeed, what is natural and what is not has been debated for many centuries. Furthermore, the contemporary view sees nature as culturally constructed, thus complicating the matter further.
The issue is not new. There is a long tradition that “disturbs” the idea of nature/natural. In his early writings, Marx contributed to the idea that humans are not separate from nature, overcoming a long (Western) philosophical tradition of superiority of reason and intellect, and therefore man, over nature (Terzakis, 2018). Marx understood nature as something that humanity must maintain a continuous dialogue with for their own survival (Terzakis, 2018), something that the industrial revolution had fundamentally changed, severing the ties between the masses and the land, with the movement of people from countryside to cities to work in factories and the enclosures of common land. Capitalism is what destroys nature with its innate desire of unlimited production and expansion. Capitalism, we could add, is unnatural.
More than a century after Marx, what is nature/natural is still contentious. Karen Barad disrupts the idea of nature not only in philosophical terms, but also as a quantum physicist. In her essay TransMaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings (2015), Barad speaks of matter, and therefore nature, as in continuous flux and becoming, as being in constant “trans-formation”, materiality indeed is trans (Barad, 2015: 410). This principle implies a constant inter/intra/trans-action with(in) particles, every animate or inanimate being is always already connected somehow to all its surrounding, in a relationship that is more complex and trans-formative then we think.
Barad adds that cells and particles, but also ecosystems if they’re not too damaged, can regenerate themselves, re-constructing their bodies like self-generating Frankenstein (Barad, 2015: 402). Nature, in a Freudian sense, is perverse, all its parts are sexualised and promiscuous, they can form relationship with and even generate one another. Through this reading then, we are all trans, we all co-create ourselves, we are as much a construct as nature is, everyone is Frankenstein. Accordingly, all matter, nature included, is trans and queer. Nature then becomes unnatural, or better, the struggle between natural and unnatural is non-existent, it loses meaning. If nature is already unnatural in its core, queering then is that process that reveals this unnatural state of nature, killing the pretence of a higher natural state of things, and revealing the artificiality of matter and everything there is, because everything is constructed. Barad adds that “matter is caught up in its own and others’ desiring fields […] it cannot help but touch itself in an infinite exploration of its (im/possible) be(com)ing(s)” (2015: 411). It’s this promiscuous state of matter, its intrinsic desire of touching, sharing, attracting, becoming-with, transforming, that makes nature queer at its core, in a sort of constant desire of fusing with other forms of being.
Donna Haraway reminds us that if we want to survive on this planet marred by ecological catastrophe, we must “stay with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016), embrace it and fuse/make kinship with other beings (human and more-than-human), in a sort of reciprocal entanglement and becoming-with. Then the very idea of natural must include queerness, or even queerness becomes the very path to nature. Heteronormativity and patriarchy, on the other hand, are the unnatural positions, going against the very grain of what nature is, an entanglement of relationships and beings. Recognising and embracing the queerness of nature that resides in everything is the only path to save this planet from ecological catastrophe.
Ultimately, considering nature in this fashion means to “decolonise our thought” from Western ideas. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Castro, 2019) calls for a letting go of old dichotomies such as nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object, concepts that have organised the world and justified exploitation, domination and abuse. Timothy Morton believes we should abandon ideas of nature altogether, because they inhibit ecological thoughts and the interconnectedness between nature and culture, and nature and humans (2009: 24).
In this exhibition, some of these themes are explored. All artists attempt to decolonise dominant ideas of nature, tackling questions of identity, colonialism and environmental concerns from a framework of otherness and a queer perspective. Some artists, like Mualem-Doron in collaboration with Abdou Issa and King, focus on climate change, contrasting nature with dance moves and environmental protests; Mace-Hopkins and Teitelbaum tackle similar issues through fantasy and mythology instead; others, like Luc(e)Raesmith, and Ludo Foster show their different relationship with nature from a “neuro-queer” and trans-person perspective: nature for them is where identity is fluid or non-existing at all. Where their being is “one with nature." The contact with nature also discloses alternative forms of (queer) spirituality, as in the film of Akaunu and ElJosef and their contact with the elements; Olmetti also explores spirituality and nature through solitary rituals during lockdown, or the marking of the territory and its ephemeral reappropriation with queer rocks. Nature also brings to the fore questions of identity and colonialism, and the work of Adekunle for example shows how the pretence of nature and ethnography has commodified and sexualised “other” bodies for Western consumption.
Finally, the concept of nature is complex, multi-layered, constructed and queer at its core. This exhibition shows some of its multiple facets, revealing its deep ramifications.
Barad, K. (2015) ‘TransMaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings’. In: GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21 (2–3): 387–422.
Castro, T. (2019) ‘The Mediated Plant’. In: E-Flux Magazine. At: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/102/283819/the-mediated-plant/.
Haraway, D. J. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
Morton, T. (2009) Ecology without Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Terzakis, E. (2018) Marx and nature. In: International Socialist Review, issue 109. At: https://isreview.org/issue/109/marx-and-nature