Rights of Nature

Laura McLean

Last week I ventured for the second time in a month to Nottingham Contemporary, where ‘Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas’ is currently showing. Curated by TJ Demos with director Alex Farquharson and Irene Aristizábal, the exhibition occupies all four galleries of this public institution, and includes work by over twenty artists including Allora & Calzadilla, Ala Plástica, Amy Balkin, Mabe Bethônico, Ursula Biemann & Paulo Taveres, Minerva Cuevas, and the Otolith Group.

The Rights of Nature project is grounded in Demos’ research into Earth Jurisprudence, which recognises that humanity, as part of a broader planetary community, must set its laws by those of Earth. Introducing the project at an opening conference (available to watch in full online), Demos explained how the move away from a property-based conception of nature and law towards a bio-centric model allows for the extension of personhood, and hence legal standing, to non-human agents. Within these parameters, the rights of nature can be recognised, and the corporations that impinge on these rights can be held accountable.

This legal revolution has been instituted in Bolivia and Ecuador, where the rights of Mother Earth have been enshrined in their constitutions, and the putting into practice of these ethics set an example which anchors Rights of Nature as a whole. Biemann & Taveres’ Forest Law deals explicitly with contestations in Ecuador, where the new Law of the Rights of Nature and International Indigenous Rights have been invoked to defend the forests of Amazonia from extractivist operations. Presented in the exhibition as a film, book, and small installation of texts, this work is a key reference point for Rights of Nature.

Among this dense exhibition however I’d like to zero in on two works particularly relevant to our topic of ‘knowledge’, by Marcos Avila Forero and Eduardo Aboroa. The rights of nature are a human construct, and their defence therefore requires both a human understanding of the intrinsic value of the natural world, and human representation in courts of law. Indigenous cultures are presented in Rights of Nature as the bridge across the rift introduced by colonialism which prised apart the continuity of life between human and other in the Americas. The representation of indigenous knowledge in art, and the treatment in turn of that art by public institutions, gives us an inroad into the complex politics of representation between various incorporations of nature, humanity, state, and business.

The production, maintenance, and loss of indigenous knowledges though living practices is addressed in Forero’s three-screen video installation, À Tarapoto, un Manati (In Tarapoto, A Manatee), filmed in Puerto Nariño, a town at the intersection of the Colombian, Peruvian, and Brazilian borders. Indigenous to the area, the Cocama people’s knowledge of the river and the life within it has been integral to their own lives for centuries, and in part one of the work, The Testimony, we hear from Don José, who shares his knowledge of the aquatic mammal, the manatee, once common in the river and now threatened with extinction after a century of logging and rubber industries related overhunting.

‘I do not complicate a thing whether I understand it, I know it’. Recounting the mythology of the sacred animal’s origins, it’s habits, diet, and migration patterns, José describes for us the manatee we see carved out of a tree, felled in the forest in part two, The Construction, and used as a raft up the Amazon River in The Travel. He has not seen a manatee since he was a boy, he says, but he can describe the methods needed to hunt them – how to read the stars to know what time at night to go out, how the body must be positioned ready to strike, where the manatee must be speared for a swift kill, and the necessity of a large canoe to match its size. José is an artist himself, and while the manatee in this work is made from memory, he also carves sculptures of the other animals from the forest and river around him. To observe, he says, is little by little to understand.

The wall text for À Tarapoto, un Manati makes the claim that the reanimation of the manatee ‘counters its threatened extinction’. Yet what becomes clear in the work is that the maintenance of a culture entwined with the deep knowledge and understanding the Cocama have of the life of the river is what prevents their extinction as an ethnic group. The reanimation of the manatee represents this living knowledge.

The artworks in Rights of Nature are loosely grouped by geography, and moving from gallery to gallery we travel through the Americas from south to north, gradually mapping a geo-political history of the continent though the twenty or so works on display, and gaining an understanding of the diverse peoples and places linked by legacies of colonial exploitation of labour and natural resources.

As a platform for the work of artists representing the various situations and struggles of these locales, Rights of Nature plays a classic pedagogical role as an exhibition. The role of the curators however we might consider in the expanded sense described by Timothy Morton in his book Hyperobjects. The term curator comes from the Latin curare, meaning ‘take care’, and is traditionally associated with a specialist collections curator within a museum. Discussing the ‘hyperobjects’ he claims are constituted by the huge, complex, yet identifiable processes that compose our planet, Morton proposes that collectively ‘we are the curators of a gigantic museum of non-art in which we have found ourselves, a spontaneous museum of hyperobjects’.[1] Through a presumed desire to invoke empathy with the Earth and its inhabitants, and action towards its preservation against the machinations of neo-liberal capitalism, the exhibition curators extend their role to foist some of the caretaking responsibility on us, the audience.

‘Rights of Nature’, says its accompanying guide, ‘contrasts the destructive philosophy that puts humans at the centre of everything, with indigenous cultures who understand our species as belonging to the great continuum of life on the planet’.

Moving north, in a sharp conceptual critique of these destructive Western philosophies, the tensions inherent in such epistemological demarcations of care are literally exploded in Aboroa’s Destrucción total del Meseo de Antropología (Total Destruction of the Anthropology Museum). Presented by the artist at the Rights of Nature conference, the video work and text and image series in the exhibition are the end results of a project in which Aboroa, in consultation with demolition experts, plotted the destruction of the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, along with all the artefacts it contains.

The museum’s collection is the world’s most important resource for the study of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica, and the building itself is an iconic example of Mexican twentieth century architecture. Built in the 1960s, the museum was conceived as a complex didactic tool to house the archeological treasures of ancient Mexico and make them available to the public. In this act of cultural appropriation, says Aboroa, the diverse indigenous cultures of the land were artificially unified, allowing the museum to stand as a symbol of a new Mexican nationalism.

The museum has changed little since then, and as an instrument for knowledge today it is scientifically obsolete. Aboara’s imagined destruction of the museum reflects this obsolescence, and makes a wry comment on the degradation of indigenous cultures beyond the museum, enacted in part by some of the same corporations that sponsor it. The museum remains the most important resource for the study of indigenous cultures past and present, but as indigenous living knowledge is eroded by the forces of neo-colonialism, some come to study the lost knowledge of their own people.

The northernmost section of Rights of Nature encompasses ‘North American regions, Earth and its atmosphere’. This classificatory expansion is a fitting conclusion to an exhibition that refutes the legal framework on which the nation state is based, and Amy Balkin’s creation of a ‘clean air’ park in the atmosphere demonstrates the jurisdiction of the commons is not earth bound, as her legal defence of the ‘hyperobject’ of the atmosphere takes Earth Jurisprudence to its supranational extreme.


 Laura McLean can be contacted on twitter at @LauraRoseMcLean


[1] Morton, Timothy, ’The Time of Hyperobjects’ in Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013

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