â€˜Man made the chicken successful through diversity, now we can learn from them.â€™
The Accident Chronicles of The Cosmopolitan Chicken October 2011
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The release of the third edition of my yearly magazine The Accident is nurtured by my selection for the 54th Venice International Art Exhibition, the Fourth Guangzhou Triennial and the official start of my Open University of Diversity in Belgium. This edition is dedicated to diversity, a theme I consider to be an inevitable ‘accident’ in society. Biological and cultural diversity, or biocultural diversity, have from the very start of my artistic career been an important dynamic for my art.
Contrary to the great belief in global uniformity as a possible solution for a stronger society, as insinuated by Andy Warhol in his oeuvre, I am convinced that the next logical step in our global development will evolve around global diversity. I am even not sure if anything other than diversity is possible. Every single, great development is based on hybridity. Every individual is struggling with his own duality, which implies that the focus on the other is inevitable. The difference in functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain is, according to me, an expression of this dual world. This argumentation can be continued philosophically on the origins and functioning of our world and society. The strength lies in the proper crossing and finding the right balance. The ideal environment and meeting will mutate everything into a new evolutionary level.
The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project confronts us with one of the most essential pillars of our society, namely domestication. This process is based on mutation, while manipulation is a later development that gives peace and acceptance to society as a whole. Global diversity is an unsettling period that allows the globalisation of solidarity.
The Open University of Diversity is an experiment in which all of these questions around diversity can be debated with people from different branches and sectors of society. So that the ‘accident’, at the right time, will teach us this: we are not alone.
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Nato a Venezia Open University of Diversity The 54th International Art Exhibition of Venice
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Born in Venice By Peter Noever, curator, Vienna/Los Angeles
In his installation for the 54th Venice Biennale the exceptional artist Koen Vanmechelen tries to get at the bottom of the “città di mare” history. He develops, especially for Venice, a “laboratory” situated in one of the main centres of Venetian culture and knowledge: the library of Palazzo Loredan. Koen Vanmechelen not only underlines the continuation of his research on the borderline between art and science, something that he has been vigorously pursuing for years, but at the
same time he will give birth to a new “generation” in his “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project”. In 1989 he started to work on what eventually became the “Cosmopolitan Chicken Project”, a worldwide cross-breeding programme involving international and regional chicken breeds. Up to now he has generated 14 generations of hybrids.
no other artist, scrutinizes at the same time his own “artistic” birth in this Venetian work-in-progress installation. He is being confronted with this intimate and spiritual environment to create a dialogue between tradition and innovation.
Together with the artist the space was carefully selected and the library is undoubtedly a great challenge for him. Vanmechelen, like probably
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The most serene chicken By Adriano Berengo, May 2011 The magnificence of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, or La Serenissima, attracted people from the most diverse places but especially from the East. Their presence enriched the city not only economically but culturally as well. Here, earlier than in other places, it was understood that immigration was crucial to ensuring the city’s growth. La Serenissima based its wealth on a flourishing commerce, one that brought together more than 100,000 inhabitants of various ethnic groups and unified them despite their differences. Between the XV and XVI centuries, the time of its greatest splendor, Venice was a cosmopolitan city. Greeks, Turks, Arabs, and Germans brought to Venice new ideas and techniques that they managed to merge fully.
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Of course at that time there was no talk of multiculturalism or integration, but history shows how these people managed to gradually become part of Venetian society. Specific regulations for foreigners safeguarded the continuity of their origins and cultures. The trump card in Venice’s expansion was this multiculturalism. The foreigners have left valuable imprints that Venice still retains in such evocative place names as the Fondaco dei Turchi (Turks’ Inn), the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (Germans’ Inn), the Jewish Ghetto, the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni (Saint Lazarus of the Armenians) and in the many campi, calli and courts bearing Greek names. Then there is the host of Venetian surnames – like Turco, Del Turco, Turcato, Moro, Morello – that also recall these Eastern and Middle Eastern origins.
Lastly, there is the Venetian dialect itself that still today retains words that came from the East. The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project is a scientific and artistic project of racial and cultural hybridization created twenty years ago by Koen Vanmechelen. His project found fertile soil, an ideal incubator in Venice and specifically on the island of Murano, where our collaboration first began. Over the years, both here on Murano and in other international glassworks, he has created various art projects using glass as a material for cultural hybridization and exchange. For all these reasons, Koen Vanmechelen’s exhibition Born in Venice-Open University of Diversity, a collateral event of the 54th Biennale Art Exhibition represents not only a step in his quest for artistic expression, coming of age with this project, but an important moment for this city, its permanent residents and visitors to reflect on Venice’s future as a symbol of culture, solidarity and hospitality.
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‘I feel like the primal chicken, living between the jungle and civilization. That’s a position where mutation can take place.’
‘Domestication is part of our process of growth’ The work of Koen Vanmechelen has taken a new direction with the solo exhibition ‘Nato a Venezia’ (Born in Venice) at the Venice Biennale. ‘The movement in recent years was from outside inwards, and now I am delving even deeper.’
By Peter Dupont The past year saw many new arrivals at Koen Vanmechelen’s. The Cosmopolitan Chicken project brought forth a new species in 2010: the Mechelse Silkie, a cross between the Mechelse Orloff and the Chinese Silkie. The 54th Venice Biennale also witnessed the birth of the 15th generation, a cross between the Mechelse Silkie and the Egyptian Fayoumi. Thousands of people saw the little Mechelse Fayoumi announce the eleventh anniversary of the global cross-breeding Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP) in the city of the Doge. The cradle of this new arrival was the grand solo exhibition Nato a Venezia (‘Born in Venice’) at the old Palazzo Loredan (Loredan Palace). The opening of Koen Vanmechelen’s Open University of Diversity (OpUnDi) in Hasselt (Belgium) was also announced at the show ‘Nato a Venezia’ in Venice. The OpUnDi acts as an independent umbrella organisation for research on Biocultural Diversity, which is the central theme in Vanmechelen’s oeuvre, and its sub-themes. It is an intellectual space unifying the three projects of Koen Vanmechelen, The Cosmopolitan Chicken, The Walking Egg and the CosmoGolem. OpUnDi acts as a think tank, a meeting place for people to discuss the core themes in Koen Vanmechelen’s work. The aim is for it to grow into a global network of innovative minds and thinkers, a space for intellectual cross-fertilisation, a breeding place where innovative ideas are given room to hatch. Koen Vanmechelen is also expanding his studios in the headquarters of OpUnDi in Hasselt at the same time. What kind of role can the arts play in the debate on biocultural diversity? Koen Vanmechelen: ‘Art can be a commentary on this very important social issue. No criticism - that would be too variable – and no more than a sigh. Comments imply participation in this debate that covers a huge field. Biocultural diversity is indeed the foundation on which the world rests. How you upset the balance and how you can restore it: that’s what this is about. There are some people who are re-examining the issue. People who have demonstrated the necessary courage, dedication, desire and faith to do so.’ Did you notice that biocultural diversity is a hot issue in contemporary art at the Poznan, Kijkduin or Venice Biennales?
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‘On the contrary, I was a little surprised at the lack of commitment in a lot of art. Perhaps committed artists were absent from the Biennials, perhaps curators have forgotten them. Everything is relative. I used to have the firm belief that ‘it’ happened in the arts. I dare not say that any more now. People make a lot of cliques, all too often chasing their own tails. When artists need to connect with what is happening and what is being said in the world. With the new fields that emerge and the doors that open into other areas and realms. In the sciences, among others. Artists who do this certainly exist, but a platform to present their work to the world has yet to be created.’ How do you view the rapid disappearance of a large part of our bio-cultural diversity? ‘Frankly, I don’t lose too much sleep over it. I am by nature a positive person. I never believe that man will destroy the planet - indeed, I believe the opposite. The earth may well tremble and shake and everything will take its last gasp. Our species is not the type to want to win. I believe in regeneration. At the expense of ourselves as human beings. Now that is something that does keep me awake nights. I love my life. I’m not sure I would be willing to sacrifice myself to keep or make everything liveable. I fear that such a moment will come. A time of selection that will restore the currently disturbed balance of nature. What gives me hope is something I picked up recently.’ What are you referring to? ‘An intriguing question that I heard. In a particular area, pigs were released into the wild after having been domesticated. They quickly become totally bewildered. Hunters tell us that they are the hardest animals to hunt. They are so intelligent that they are almost impossible to find. In other words: their intelligence had given them an added advantage in the wild. In my CCP project, I note that chickens are becoming wilder. The definition is correct: chickens do not become ‘primal chickens’ through multiple cross-breedings, but they will turn into something else. They get something extra. Domestication may be a necessary evil in the evolutionary process that makes actual mutation possible. Domestication is certainly part of the growth process. For humans. Which explains why mutation came out of domestication. Then you have manipulation and the return to the wild, which is a new mutation in itself: evolution.’
How do you view the social diversity debate? ‘That debate will grow in step with a society. I believe in global diversity. This is utopian thought on a grand scale, that’s certainly true, but when an individual is ready to leave a group, they must up to it. This is justified: take responsibility yourself - automatically - for others and for what is new. If you can do this as an individual and not in the group, you will find an unlikely evolution and social growth. Respect for the differences of others. That is development. Too bad that we as a society cannot maintain that. Apparently we are not ready for it yet.’ At the Venice Biennale, there was a striking amount of politically tinged art on display. Is art political? ‘No, but there is definitely a political element in a good work of art. Apart from scientific and other aspects. Was Pablo Picasso political? The answer is ‘no’ - but ‘yes’ as well. As an artist I do not feel called upon to make political statements or to take up the political issues that the media is full of. The media often shows only part of the truth, or imitates it rather than creating. I am a little wary of such media. Being committed does not mean chasing after the issues of the day. On the contrary’ Do people still tell you that chickens are not art? ‘In the past, I would have had difficulties with such a comment, but now I find them very interesting. Peter Noever, the curator of my ‘Nato a Venezia’ exhibition at the Venice Biennale, is perhaps right in saying that legitimised art is probably no longer art. And that it certainly does not ‘have’ to be interesting. Much more intriguing, in addition to the acknowledged formal artistic language, is art that stands the test of time. Like the works of Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys and Pablo Picasso have done. Initially they were reviled, mocked and ignored. Now these people are the giants of contemporary art. This is also how I see the chicken in the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project: There’s no doubt it’s an animal, that’s clear. But it is also possible a work of art. This is an open question and makes the project so very fascinating. Only time will tell what it is.’ Last year was a remarkable year. The CCP seems to be caught in a maelstrom. ‘That’s right, the Venice Biennale and the exhibition at the Museum für Zeitgenössische Kunst
(Museum of Contemporary Art), Eupen in particular stay in my memory. The chicken towers at the Poznan Biennale too. The CosmoGolem project, which featured on national TV stations for months on end, has now caught on nationally as well as internationally. A lot of other projects will follow later this year. I have to set up an exhibition in three countries this month, in four countries next month, and then five countries the month after. Among others, in Guangzhou, China. To be a European in the centre of a Chinese triennial event is very special and a great honour. The trend is that there are now people supporting my project, who want to head the discussion and to raise it to a higher level. People like Jan Hoet, Jean-Hubert Martin, Peter Noever, Thomas Wendland and many others.’ Apparently, China is becoming increasingly important as a platform for the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project? ‘The energy of my project is catching on all over the world. But China is something special. The country is vast and is evolving, and the Chinese understand the project very well. Unlike us in the West, they are not cut off from the chicken and what it tells us. They think of transformation, are on a journey of discovery and understand the knowledge inherent in this process. We are light years away from this. Sadly we have become too focused on objects. We have become tired of what is deeply conceptual. We have now turned our attention to images.’ Has the course you set changed in the past year? ‘What has been achieved in Venice today is completely new. I look ‘behind’ the chicken and open up the project. After years of communicating about the cross-breeding project, I was able to go deeper. I have also matured further in the project, I know where I want to stand in ten years, and can see much more because the project has taken the centre position. And because I do not judge, but allow things to work ‘against’ each other. Whereas before I felt an urge to make everything very clear. Now it is obvious that things are by no means clear at all. But that it’s all about passion. The universal nature of my work is growing. Most art becomes more individual, more focused on the artist himself. That is uninteresting.’
‘Yes, but that’s not a problem. Like any project, mine attracts both sharks as well as dolphins. Finding the right balance - that is the message.’ Going deeper may mean that the project is hard to grasp? ‘I don’t think so, I have spent ten years travelling the globe explaining the basis of the project. I believe very strongly that artists must emerge from their ivory towers and head off into the world. To feel, to seek and explain the cross-fertilisation. I am now beginning to reap the benefits.’ There has been a strong focus in recent years on the bridge between art and science. Do you think about making other bridges, such as the bridge between art and art? ‘I’m thinking about it. You don’t have to work alone in order to be pure. It would also be nice if someone else lit the fire. In 2012 Hasselt, the operating base of my OpUnDi (Open University of Diversity), will provide accommodation to artists as part of the Hotel Migrantes by Polish curator Thomas Wendland. They will be asked to go on tour with a suitcase in hand, and to stay overnight in Hasselt. I find the migration of artists combined with CCP very interesting. That is diversity.’ ‘Will the views or sub-themes in your work - Walking Egg, CosmoGolem and CCP – be able to withstand? ‘I think they’re all going to be brought together and merge. There will be a breakthrough in these three fields thanks to the creation of the OpUnDi. Their common denominator, and that of societies and cultures, is fertility and immunity. Those who fail in both will be guilty of inbreeding and will perish.’
The attention of the people toward the project is growing, like their yearning. Is that not difficult?
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Luisa Maffi, founder of the field of Biocultural Diversity
The delicate umbilical cord between nature and culture Species disappear, languages die and cultures perish – all at the same breakneck speed. ‘Cultural diversity and biodiversity are inextricably linked,’ says Luisa Maffi, founder of the new transdisciplinary field of biocultural diversity. ‘If we want to stop the homogenization on our planet, language is where we have to start.’
By Peter Dupont She died on 26 February 2010, aged 85. And although the end of her life had been very lonely, reports of her death were picked up all over the internet: Boa Senio had passed away. The last speaker of ‘Bo’, one of ten languages spoken on Great Andaman, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. The end of a unique language, retracing its origins 65.000 years ago, and one of the oldest cultures on earth. Shortly before Senior’s death, Congolese soldiers discovered 116 elephant tusks in a toppled lorry headed for Kisangani. The tusks, worth more than 3m euros, were intended for the Asian market. At the same time, 12,000 kilometres to the north east, grizzly bears were spotted in polar bear territory for the first time at Wapusk National Park in Manitoba. Rangers are expecting grey bears next year. People could not care less in Mozambique, where hunger was causing food riots. Also elsewhere, in Haiti, Senegal and Egypt the poor were taking to the streets in massive numbers. The wheat crisis forced the Russian government to impose a ban on wheat export. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Canada, Florida, Pakistan, Brazil and Columbia were weighed down by disastrous crops. These seemingly separate events are all symptoms of a worldwide epidemic of homogenization. Experts have acknowledged the danger of biological and cultural extinction for a long time. But only recently have they come to realize that the two are actually two sides of the same coin. Before man will ever be able to chart the dazzling diversity on the planet, the great leveller has struck. According to UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, between 150 and 200 species are disappearing every day. One of all 7,000 surviving languages is disappearing every fourteen days. Domesticated food is destroying a crop every six hours. Together, these shocking figures paint a picture of tragic loss. The loss of cultures and languages also implies the loss of age-old warehouses of knowledge. At breakneck speed. When species die, valuable genetic sources and important junctions in complex ecological networks disappear. It is no coincidence that both cultural and biological diversity are being lost at a rapid pace, according to the young academic field of biological diversity. The conviction that human culture and nature are mutually connected has been deeply rooted in the world views of many tradition-
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al cultures and indigenous peoples for millennia. But until the end of the previous century this vision had hardly spawned in academic minds. It wasn’t until October 1996 that a group of scientists, activists and field workers gathered for the first time in California to hold a modest conference on threats jeopardizing knowledge, languages and shrinking biotopes. The idea took off and a decade later the UNEP report stated: ‘Biodiversity also comprises human cultural diversity, which is threatened by the same factors as those threatening biodiversity, and impacting upon the diversity of genes, other species and ecosystems.’ The concept of biocultural diversity has become well established in academic circles, but is as yet little known beyond. The public at large hasn’t got a clue. ‘The book Biocultural Diversity Conservation, a global sourcebook, should be a step in the right direction to change that,’ says Luisa Maffi, one of the authors and founders of the field of biocultural diversity. The gradual understanding of the fragile and complex relationship between culture and nature are fundamentally indebted to the work of this Italian-Canadian anthropologist and linguist. How did your biocultural view of diversity emerge? ‘Thirty years ago, having just graduated from the University of Rome, I was doing field work in Somalia. It’s there that the idea of a possible link between language and ecology first came to me. After moving to the University of California at Berkeley for my doctoral research, I started studying indigenous medicine in Chiapas, Mexico. And then all of a sudden the idea hit me like lightning. I was interviewing a group of Tzeltal Mayas who were queueing outside a clinic in the village of Tenejapa. A young guy had been running for hours, carrying his two-year-old daughter in his arms. The child was suffering from diarrhoea. It turned out the father merely had a vague recollection of a herb that the Tzeltal Mayas had been using successfully to treat diarrhoea for generations. Because the words for the herb had been lost, he didn’t remember its medicinal effect either. I suddenly realized that species and languages aren’t the only things to disappear … vital knowledge disappears with them. And probably a lot more as well.’ Maffi ran her insights by indigenous leaders, field workers, experts, scientists and linguists. In 1996 the first conference on biocultural diversity was held at Berkeley. Ethnosphere and biosphere, natural and social scientists came together. A year
later Maffi founded Terralingua, an international organization devoted to research, education and defending the interests of ‘the human being’s linguistic rights’. A pioneer in the field of the conservation of biocultural diversity. The questions the organization needs to answer, while the planet is heading for the sixth mass extinction in the course of its history are not straightforward at all: what is diversity? How can it be measured and protected? How much diversity do we need? Time is running out. According to the Zoological Society of London about a third of all wild species has become extinct since 1970; by the end of this century 50 to 90 per cent of all 6.800 languages will have died out. The speed at which homo sapiens is leaving his devastating footprint everywhere on earth is disconcerting. What does Terralingua do? ‘It encourages on-the-ground action and supports research into this new scientific field. We have just organized a symposium in New York City bringing together 300 important thinkers on issues such as nature conservation, anthropology, biology and linguistics. To bridge the gap between the natural sciences and social sciences. And this seems to be expanding continuously: ethnolinguistics, ethnozoology, ethnobotany, ethnobiology and ethnoecology – all of them bear witness to the growth of interdisciplinary research. All of them are concerned with the way in which different peoples use and perceive their environment. The result of the symposium was a resolution in which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stipulated the need for efforts to preserve cultural diversity. The real web of life is indeed not just constituted by nature, as most people think, but by culture and nature. Biological, cultural and linguistic diversity have been interrelated and interdependent from the very beginning. Terralingua research has shown that global spread of biodiversity coincides with cultural diversity, which is expressed in the number of languages on our planet.’ How do you perceive this interdependence between nature and culture? ‘Biologists know that diversity contributes to the resilience of an ecosystem. That the same applies to human cultures is increasingly becoming clearer. Cultural diversity reinforces the identity of human beings, it promotes creativity and promulgates responses that are grafted onto a particular context. Supporting survival. The problem is that our economic models and political systems
promote homogeneous answers to the needs and challenges of development and conservation. We lose diversity in the process, and many people are alienated from their cultural strengths as a result. From the accumulated knowledge and strategies that provided the basis for generations of adaptation and survival.’ How do you map out this umbilical cord between culture and nature? ‘Through an Index of Biocultural Diversity, a perfect tool for conservation. Figures collected on human languages, for example, show that linguistic diversity diminished by twenty per cent between 1970 and 2005. Biodiversity decreased as strongly in the same period according to the WWF Living Planet Index. This points to a converging extinction index of biocultural diversity. The existence of so-called hotspots of ‘megadiversity’ in countries like Burma (now the Union of Myanmar, PD), India and China, illustrates how biology and culture can come to each other’s aid. In a small corner of tropical forests in the eastern Himalaya more than thirty Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken. In the gardens of three small villages more than 150 domesticated nutritious plants are grown.’ Why are nature and culture twins? ‘Linguistic and cultural diversity is the blend of a number of specific values and convictions. Of knowledge and practices that enabled communities and cultures to live in a dynamic balance with their environment. This is the outcome of mutual interactions spanning several millennia. Because linguistic and cultural diversity are being eroded, we are losing the tools that have warranted a sustainable, humane existence on earth for so long. Indigenous and local communities are already experiencing the consequences to a very large extent, but eventually the whole global community will suffer the blow.’ How can knowledge dating back ages still be meaningful for us today? ‘It’s a matter of falling over and picking oneself up again. For example: native tribes on the Andaman and Nicobar islands were able to save themselves from the 2004 tsunami thanks to age-old knowledge handed down from one generation to the next. Others died. The tribes anticipated the ‘vast shaking of the soil’ and the resulting huge wall of water. They immediately moved to higher ground in the woods and did not drown.’
What are the main ideas behind Terralingua’s biocultural approach to the conservation of nature and culture? ‘We are currently developing a new paradigm of biocultural conservation. The book launches a conceptual framework in that respect. Besides 45 case studies from all different continents, it contains a wide range of conclusions and recommendations. The projects speak for themselves. Some focus on the preservation of cultural practices that protect biodiversity. Others concentrate on traditional knowledge and the conservation of indigenous and local languages. And then there are also projects that develop new methods of conservation.’ What are some of the indigenous endangered languages involved in the projects? ‘One very successful, linguistic project has obtained first-hand knowledge of the linguistic situation of the aboriginal communities on the Andaman islands. Another one that springs to mind was started in the Kimberley region in Western Australia. The 16,500 aboriginals who live there, in six cities and 50 remote communities, speak more than thirty languages. They are a treasure trove of ethnobiological data. The Kimberley Language Resource Center Aboriginal Corporation tries to capture the extant knowledge via audio-visual media. Aided by the aboriginals themselves. In that way knowledge involving particular trees in the Jaru language, for example, is recorded on DVD for future generations. A group of women has compiled the knowledge of medicinal bush plants to be passed on to the community’s children.’ Which strategies can counteract the destroyers of diversity: large-scale economic development, dismantling nature and acculturation? ‘First of all, acknowledging the cultural identity of groups. But reviving traditional cultural opinions is equally important. And then also revitalizing old languages and encouraging the transfer of knowledge across generations. The link between a person and his property – the land and its resources - should not be cut, that is truly of fundamental importance. That’s why existing social structures and institutions should be kept. A crucial factor in all this, finally, is boosting the resilience of original languages and cultures.’ Boosting their resilience against whom or what?
‘Against the unchecked introduction of more diversity. Usually diversity is lost in the process. On the face of it, it sounds like a surplus, but the introduction of a language like English or Spanish in a local community, for example, will quickly end up affecting the language of the community through processes of ‘language shift’. Especially in the US and Australia this has happened in massive numbers. California, for example, once boasted the largest diversity of indigenous languages in North America. Nothing much is left of that now. The same is true of the introduction of invasive species: what seems like an increase of diversity at first, culminates in a loss of overall diversity. As a matter of fact, the higher the organically developed biological and cultural variety of a system, the higher its resilience. Are there any valuable biocultural projects in developed countries? ‘Just a few, most projects are organized in developing countries and in rural areas. In spite of the focus on multiculturalism that prevails in many countries today, the urban landscape develops in a strikingly monobiocultural manner. I’ve just returned from Los Angeles and often there was hardly any tree in sight. And yet cities are also extremely important for us, because half of the world’s population live in cities at the moment. Why not create pockets of bioculturalism inside cities?’ Any examples of such urban projects in developed countries? Not too far from where I live, in Vancouver, there is a project that aims at collecting traditional medicinal knowledge. And intends to strengthen the identity of the people involved in doing so. Another example is South Africa, where people who have moved to cities, reinforce their identity by using therapeutic herbs. To us that may be a topic of future research. By that time our index of traditional knowledge will have been fine-tuned. That tool will enable us to determine the transfer of knowledge in connection with age, gender and education, to name just a few parameters. Both worldwide and chronologically. We have been promoting this index among certain indigenous peoples already. Also the original language of Hawaii was saved by creating so-called Hawaiian nests: preschool child care immersing children in the indigenous language. Initiatives like these are catching on once peoples start to realize what they have lost. Their soul.’
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Cry for help from the Eighth Continent In a place where two thousand years ago elephant birds and giant finger animals roamed, scientists today are fighting to save the extraordinary biodiversity. Belgian biologist An Bollen, head of the Madagascar Fauna Group, paints a worrisome picture of Madagascar’s unique nature reserves, which are being leeched by poverty, political turmoil and predatory capitalism.
By Peter Dupont The Red Island, the Eighth Continent, the Island of the Moon: Madagascar, one of the largest islands on earth, coming fourth after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo, has been fascinating mankind since the start of human presence on its soil, some 2300 years ago. An area of almost 232,000 square miles and filled to the brim with endemic species; species that originated on the island and do not occur anywhere else on the planet. Amounting to 80% of plant species, as David Quammen observes in his eye-opening book The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Add to this half of all birds, more than 90% of reptiles and amphibians, tenrecs and lemurs, the intriguing species of primates whose presence on Madagascar dates back tens of millions of years. But the island is bleeding. Aerial photographs symbolically show rivers which erosion has coloured red that appear to be emptying themselves into the Indian Ocean and the Street of Mozambique, a strait that separates Madagascar from the African continent. The last remaining primary rainforests are being ransacked, the country is rife with corruption, unique animal species and woods are disappearing and the poverty-stricken population is paying the price. Fifty years after its independence, the Island of the Moon is in dire straits. Belgian biologist An Bollen (34) is one of those people who try to turn the tide. She has been living on Madagscar for the past five years and has been involved as a programme manager with the NGO ‘Madagscar Fauna Group’ (MFG) in the north east of the continental island for three years, a function previously held by two people. ‘MGF was founded by an international consortium of zoos and botanic gardens,’ she explains. ‘We are involved in scientific research and nature conservation, in capacity reinforcement and environmental education. I work with a team of about forty people in the 5.505.5 acre nature reserve of Betampona, and the 696.84 acre Ivoloina forest station, where we aim to protect and map the area’s vast biological riches. This is in the north east, in the province of Tomoasina. But there’s not much we can attain, without improving the dismal situation of people locally and thus developing integrated natural resource management.’ What are the primary concerns of the Madagascar Fauna Group?
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‘We focus especially on breeding programmes involving endangered species, lemurs in particular and recently we’ve also turned to frogs. Ivoloina Parc, a multifunctional living laboratory, is 8,6 miles north of the provincial capital of Tamatave, also called Toamasina. We protect endangered species of flora and fauna ex situ there, the former in the forestry station, the latter in the zoo. This zoo harbours only Malagasy species, fenced as well as in the wild. Most of these animals are victims of illegal animal trade, abandoned ‘exotic pets’ or orphans of ‘bush meat’. And then we’ve also got our training centre, our model station for sustainable agricultural techniques, a forest station and a beautiful Environmental Education Center. There we teach local people and school children how to approach biodiversity and we make them aware of the importance of nature in their everyday lives. We welcome about 16,000 visitors annually, many of them ecotourists, but the majority are Malagasy.’ And at Betampona? ‘The primary low land rain forest holds a massive wealth of species. Scientific research should lead to concrete conservation advice. A team of eight research agents lives in the forest, each of them focusing on their own specific research projects. For ten years now they’ve been covering five transections every day and night: they follow a route along which they track the presence of particular species and observe the impact of the climate. The idea is to describe which species are living in primary and in degraded woodland and to assess the density in which they occur. We’re curious to find out if we can spot any differences or any effect of climate change. ‘Another team is following four groups of vari, an endangered lemur species. When it started, MFG reintroduced vari’s in the wild from several zoos because the population had become too small. These groups and their offspring are today still kept track of through a ‘radiotelemetric’ collar. Biomedical research of the lemurs is yet another part of the research. We check the possible impact of forest quality on the health of various kinds of lemurs.’ Apparently you are also examining species of trees: is MFG becoming MFFG: Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group? (Laughs) ‘That’s right! In the past there was hardly any research interest for flora. But fauna is dependent on flora and now we take a more holistic approach. At the moment we closely monitor thirteen threatened species of trees, endemic to Betampona, and we’ve mapped their populations. We want
to collect seeds now and grow trees in our breeding stations to plant them out in the forest in the long run, with the assistance of Madagascar National Parks. In that way species can be protected and the population expanded. Some of these species, for example, number as few 14 adult trees and their regeneration is limited. We don’t know the reason yet. Is it because of the dominance of invasive plant species or because the disseminator of seeds has disappeared? And then, finally, we plan a project with the Missouri Botanical Garden to map out endemic species of ebony and palisander, much sought-after varieties of hardwood. This will be rely on a kind of DNA analysis.’ So you regularly launch new programmes? ‘Absolutely. One of them entails transferring 300 of our 360 side-necked turtles, heavily threatened by illegal animal trade and deforestation, from Ivoloina to Tulear, in the south west of Madagascar. The animals are originally from that region. Staying with us, in the east, they contract moulds because of the humid climate. Living in overcrowded circumstances and feeding on plants not high enough in fibre, they turn aggressive. We send them to the specialised centre of the French organization Le Village des Tortues. Of course only after obtaining the approval of the international community and of the ministry for the environment. For we need to take care that we don’t introduce any diseases or that the animals are kept in a centre where they experience better living standards. The ethics involved in exchange and follow-up have to be closely monitored.’ Are there any other new projects that MFG is currently involved in? ‘There’s one project that concentrates on the greater bamboo lemur, the most endangered lemur, listed among the 25 most endangered primate species in the world. There should be an increase in the exchange of these animals in captivity and recently we have carried out such an exchange with the European Zoo community to improve the genetic diversity of the species in captivity. This is a species numbering just about 300 individuals in the wild. In terms of long-term projects we always try to implement more assessments to measure the impact and efficiency of our programmes and activities. To name but one example: for 14 years now we’ve been organizing Saturday classes, teaching 280 children a year, in four different schools. To foster their chances of continued education. Now we are looking for children who have also attended our environment camps at secondary school level and have gone on to study
Environment and Nature Conservation, for example, or Geography at the University of Tamatave, one of our most important partners. We hope that these young ‘green’ ambassadors can help promote changes in environmental management and conservation.’
quite often these fires spread, leading to the loss of far more forest and land than they can ever cultivate. This is the big tragedy for nature conservation on the island. But on these biologically poor soils we can work perfectly well with non-invasive exotic species.’
Do you also support reafforestation? ‘We’ve launched a reafforestation project around the nature reserve. Initially we were mainly aiming at laying out a green belt and getting as many farmers involved as possible. Now we encourage people who have already planted trees to pursue that effort in a lasting and sustainable way so that their efforts will effectively create new forest land. Forest management takes as long as 50 years , up to a century. We make people aware of this, reward them with prizes and material: a shovel and a bucket can mean a world of difference. Longterm planning is not an obvious step for the Malagasy, who need to survive from one day to the next, and so that’s something we have to invest in continuously too. Recently we also set up our ‘bush cinema’ and put their own proper biodiversity on show to all different villages around the reserve, what it means to them and why it’s important to protect the wood. We show that forests are responsible for local climate management, for cleaning water and air, protecting rivers and preventing erosion. We establish a link between the human being’s dependency and the health of the forest. Without wood no charcoal, houses or warmth. The population is increasingly sensitive to these issues and now only uses local vegetation for reafforestation, thereby expanding the reserve to some extent. These kinds of wood grow slowly, which is why are considering growing other species in different areas, fast growers like eucalyptus and acacia, to cultivate the land and supply their need for wood.’
Can’t you teach the Malagasy any alternative agricultural methods? ‘That’s the idea, but changing mentalities and age-old habits requires a lot of time and is utterly hard to do. Model farmers who try out innovative techniques obtain a rice crop four times the size of their neighbours. And still their example is hardly popular because many farmers think it’s far more labour-intensive. Another prejudice: vegetables are still not grown by the coast because the Malagasy do not appreciate the nutrional value. We taught this technique to some inquisitive farmers in the area around Ivoloina and in doing so, we also procured a market for them: the more than 450 animals at our zoo. A handful of farmers are now selling these vegetables at a small local market in the jungle.’
Sounds like heretic practices for a field biologist. ‘It’s a concession, I agree, but you can’t practise nature conservation without. You have to be able to offer alternatives. Over 85% of Malagasy forests have disappeared so far, completely deteriorating into savanna. Trees like eucalyptus can grow on such land. It’s a balancing act between protecting valuable areas on the one hand and valorizing degraded areas in alternative ways. Those are very poor, leached soils used for cultivating rice or cassava. They yield less each year, as a result of typical agricultural practices: the Malagasy fellling and burning technique. They cut down plots of forest and set them on fire, but
Do you approach key figures in the villages for these projects? ‘We always talk to the political village head and the tangalamena, the traditional village head. Without their cooperation, nothing goes. And then we also always involve the principal, the mayor of the commune, the chief Zap, who is responsible for the education of the whole commune, and the FRAM associations: the parents of pupils. Sometimes also smaller associations of farmers are involved in our training programmes. We teach mayors the law of forestry. They don’t realize that they have the right to stop illegal logging, to confiscate wood and put it to general use in their commune. Years of cooperation have created a bond of trust and now a network of village heads reports any illegal activities to us. We can’t see all that is going on ourselves.’ Where are the outlets for this valuable, hard wood? ’90 per cent of it goes to China, and then there’s the European and American furniture and music industry. Palisander is apparently often used for guitars and cellos. China has taken great steps today to protect its own remaining forests by importing wood from abroad on a massive scale. There’s a ramified wood maffia in Madagascar and hardly any action is taken to tackle the problem. Because of the political crisis central rule is no longer acknowledged and corruption is ram-
pant. I very often see for myself how containers or piles of wood are stored out in the open in Tamatave, waiting for sea carriage. All from “theoretically” protected nature reserves. Corruption has infiltrated onto the highest levels. You sound as if you’re fighting a losing battle? ‘I do have that feeling right now. It’s hard to work here and do something constructive as long as there’s no new government. Data on organized robbery, illegal logging and animal trade, regularly disappear. Archives are being burned leaving us without any objective data. Since international organizations have withdrawn on a large scale and no foreign currency is flowing into the country, people have embraced the sole riches that are left: their fauna and flora. There are times when I can feel my heart sinking into my boots, but I won’t give up. This island is so important for the diversity of our planet. Many of the larger NGO’s have withdrawn their funding for nature conservation. That has done great harm to nature here. The country is in a standoff of political isolation. With some twenty environmental NGO’s we have also sent out a cry for help to the government and the international community to help turn the tide. The population knows that these are serious issues we’re confronted with but without any well-functioning social structures and political initiative, we’re not getting anywhere.’ So who is logging all the wood? Usually it’s not the local population living near the forests, but teams from other regions where the wood maffia holds a lot of power. They engage youngsters to do the logging, paying them but a pittance – between 5 and 6.000 ariary or barely two euros. This is the typical situation in a poverty-stricken country where short-term thinking prevails. Some communes try to stop these guys, but how can you take on armed gangs? There’s no funding to mobilize armed rangers in the national parks ourselves. Our teams regularly carry out patrols in Betampona and their presence does scare off individuals. We can count ourselves lucky that logging does not occur on a large scale in our area. Extreme poverty? ‘The situation among ordinary people is just appalling. It’s everyone fending for themselves, survival on a day-to-day basis. That’s the reason why my godmother has created the An Foundation. A small financial contribution makes a great difference to many poor children.
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Weddings and beheadings By Hanif Kureishi I have gathered the equipment together and now I am waiting for them to arrive. They will not be long; they never are. You don’t know me personally. My existence has never crossed your mind. But I would bet you’ve seen my work: it has been broadcast everywhere, on most of the news channels worldwide. Or at least parts of it have. You could find it on the Internet, right now, if you really wanted to. If you could bear to look. Not that you’d notice my style, my artistic signature or anything like that. I film beheadings, which are common in this war-broken city, my childhood home. It was never my ambition, as a young man who loved cinema, to film such things. Nor was it my wish to do weddings either, though there are less of those these days. Ditto graduations and parties. My friends and I have always wanted to make real films, with living actors and dialogue and jokes and music, as we began to do as students. Nothing like that is possible anymore. Everyday we are ageing, we feel shabby. The stories are there, waiting to be told; we’re artists. But this stuff, the death work, it has taken over. We were ‘recommended’ for this employment, and we can’t not do it; we can’t say we’re visiting relatives or working in the cutting room. They call us up with little notice at odd hours, usually at night, and minutes later they are outside with their guns. They put us in the car and cover our heads. Because there’s only one of us working at a time, the thugs help with carrying the gear. But we have to do the sound as well as the picture, and load the camera and work out how to light the scene. I’ve asked to use an assistant yet they only offer their rough accomplices who know nothing, who can’t even wipe a lens without making a mess of it. I know three other guys who do this work; we discuss it amongst ourselves, but we’d never talk to anyone else or we’d end up in front of the camera.
in. My friend tried to tell the men, “It’s too dark, it’s not going to come out and you can’t do another take.” But they were in a hurry, he couldn’t persuade them to wait, they were already hacking through the neck and he was in such a panic he fainted. Luckily the camera was running. It came out underlit of course - what did they expect? I liked it; Lynchian, I called it, but they hit him around the head, and never used him again. He was lucky. But I wonder if he’s going mad. Secretly he kept copies of his beheadings and now he plays around with them on his computer, cutting and re-cutting them, putting them to music, swing stuff, opera, jazz, comic songs. Perhaps it’s the only freedom he has. It might surprise you, but we do get paid; they always give us something ‘for the trouble’. They even make jokes, “You’ll get a prize for the next one. Don’t you guy love prizes and statuettes and stuff?” It’s all hellish, the long drive there with the camera and tripod on your lap, the smell of the sack, the guns, and you wonder if this time you might be the victim. Usually you’re sick, and then you’re in the building, in the room, setting up, and you hear things, from other rooms, that make you wonder if life on earth is a good idea. I know you don’t want too much detail, but it’s serious work taking off someone’s head if you’re not a butcher; and these guys aren’t qualified, they’re just enthusiastic - it’s what they like to do. To make the shot work, it helps to get a clear view of the victims eyes just before they’re covered. At the end the guys hold up the head streaming with blood and you might need to use some hand-held here, to catch everything. The shot must be framed carefully. It wouldn’t be good if you missed something. [Ideally you should have a quick-release tripod head, something I do possess and would never lend to anyone.] They cheer and fire off rounds while you’re checking the tape and playing it back. Afterward, they put the body in a bag and dump it somewhere, before they drive you to another place, where you transfer the material to the computer and send it out.
Until recently my closest friend filmed beheadings, however he’s not a director, only a writer really. I wouldn’t say anything, but I wouldn’t trust him with a camera. He isn’t too sure about the technical stuff, how to set up the equipment, and then how to get the material through the computer and onto the Internet. It’s a skill, obviously.
Often I wonder what this is doing to me. I think of war photographers, who, they say, use the lens to distance themselves from the reality of suffering and death. But those guys have elected to do that work, they believe in it. We are innocent.
He was the one who had the idea of getting calling cards inscribed with “Weddings and Beheadings” inscribed on them. If the power’s on, we meet in his flat to watch movies on video. When we part he jokes, “Don’t bury your head in the sand, my friend. Don’t go losing your head now. Chin up!”
One day I’d like to make a proper film, maybe beginning with a beheading, telling the story that leads up to it. It’s the living I’m interested in, but the way things are going I’ll be doing this for a while. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to go mad, or whether even this escape is denied me.
A couple of weeks ago he messed up badly. The cameras are good quality, they’re taken from foreign journalists, but a bulb blew in the one light he was using, and he couldn’t replace it. By then they had brought the victim
I better go now. Someone is at the door.
Published with the permission of the author.
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art and science
By Rik Pinxten, Univ. of Ghent
This is the second time I am given the opportunity as a scientist to present an idea on Koen Vanmechelen and his chicken project. I am very pleased to do this for two reasons. - First he is an artist who consistently aims to bridge the gap between science and art. I think he is right on this point. Both science and art are wonderful and indeed powerful forms of human invention and creativity. Personally, I think that this may probably be the ultimate, although gradual, distinction between humans and other animals: by means of the faculty of fantasy and imagination we add a dimension to the determinacy of nature. We do this mainly in the action fields of knowledge and art. Koen Vanmechelen went along this path like no other artist and invites both forms of human creativity to collaborate. - Secondly, Koen Vanmechelen belongs to a new group of artists who engage themselves in their era and their world. Without landing in a programmatic art form Vanmechelen develops a clear societal perspective in his work. He thus places himself in the small but strong group of contemporary artists who criticise the academism of some and the boundless involvement in conceptualism and discursive processes of others. Some artists of today keep on arguing, developing metapositions and so-called philosophical views. One wonders what remains to be seen then. Artists like Vanmechelen, Jan Fabre and Luc Tuymans, just like Lucian Freud and others, produce important artworks, and confront us at the same time with the world and the human impact on it. I recognize in Vanmechelen this aspect, and I applaud it. It is important to say that his is not a political or ideological position in the old sense, but rather a deep and open questioning and critique of our culture. From there he develops a quest both in scientific and artistic ways. What is my kinship with Vanmechelen? I think that our combination of creativity and engagement is similar: I cannot study people and cultures as if they were pure abstractions. Or worse, as if they were pure objects, existing as curiosities outside of my reality. People are also, and for more than 90%, exactly like me. It is a form of alienation to deny that sameness and to exclude this equality from one’s research. This entails that, whenever I study the great sameness and the small differences among people and traditions, I have to make clear to my audience and to the media that it is an absolute priority to learn to deal with these small differences. The next step then is to point to choices: either I enlarge the small differences and state that humans differ so much from one another that living together is virtually impossible. Mentally the 10% difference is then blown up to a 100% difference. Or I indicate how these small differences allow for conviviality through making agreements and recognizing differences as relative. Personally I chose the latter position. But my point is first and foremost that I have to point out these alternatives for action as a researcher in my research horizon, and not shy
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away from it in so-called objectivity. As a cultural anthropologist I study this question of sameness and difference, and as a humanist I speak up for a position in action. Through globalisation the uniformity of ways of life and of consumption goods increases rapidly. The impact of humans on earth in general has become a dominant theme , touching us all. Koen Vanmechelen must have had a similar experience with his work, I think. Chickens are a bird species, which was domesticated early on. They came to live with human beings and allowed us to eat their eggs. Moreover, chickens became the primary sacrificial animal: everywhere in the world chickens are sacrifices to yield a better life for man, a better crop, the healing of a sick person, the exorcism of evil, and what not. In our society chickens were caught in another development: chickens, with almost all nature, were put purely and solely at the service of human interests and needs. The chicken became an industrial product, produced in factories. Like any other product the most profitable and the least costly variant was selected out in what is known as a cost-benefit analysis. A living being and even a species was thus reduced to a marketing issue. The races of chickens that did not meet the best cost-benefit standards were not allowed to breed anymore. This process subdues values of diversity and quality to the dominant principle of market economy. We do the same thing with human beings though: we consider our little group of westerners as a super-race and reorganize the world in such a way the others have to survive in less comfortable conditions. They are coerced by means of economic structures and often even by police and military rule to survive in poor contexts. We then call them primitive, or underdeveloped or ‘endemically poor’. Koen Vanmechelen is conscious of these less nice aspects of our western world view, and of the way racism and other forms of exclusion are installed and continued. While I write, and speak about this I indicate how human creativity can go one step further towards recognition and a civilized treatment of differences, Koen Vanmechelen works in a different way. He invites us urgently to treat these fundamental questions of difference by means of the symbol of the most vulnerable and inoffensive domesticated animals in our midst, namely the chicken. He launches the symbolic project of the primal chicken, under the heading ‘The Cosmopolitan Chicken’. He involves our scientists , especially geneticists, in this project. It is not his aim, I guess, to actually generate such a primal chicken, even if that would be a realistic option. Rather, the artist invites us to reflect on our awkward way of dealing with the small differences. How come we can only deal with difference by eliminating it? Why do we lack room in our intelligence , in our heart and in our fantasy to appreciate differences as a richness, and an enlargement of our world of experience? What could be more beautiful and attractive than variation, and the enjoyment of of the little peculiarities which make us all individuals and at the same time linked with each other
in the shared fate of living on planet earth? This is how I interpret Vanmechelen’s project of The Cosmopolitan Chicken: it is a challenge to human beings to learn to love difference and to become conscious of its importance for human creativity, and hence for human survival in nature as a profoundly diverse reality. As human beings we diminish our own value by eliminating the diversity within species in view of mere economic profits. We diminish our human dignity and decency by having other human beings live in humiliating conditions, simply because they are culturally different from us. This is not a political message in the narrow, ideological sense, which I read in Vanmechelen’s work of art. It is an honest and deeply felt human commitment, a deep humanistic engagement with humanity which is lost in its mere focus on direct profit and interests, thus disregarding a wider horizon. How great do we see ourselves as brokers of nature and humanity? How much do we think to control and manipulate and where do we find the pretention to safeguard the predator position of the rich North vis-à-vis the rest of the world? What arrogance and what narrow-mindedness do we carry in this culture of ours. And all this because we have booked some results in the material and the technological realms during the past three centuries. What happens with the spiritual dimensions of humankind? What with the sense of life and death? What with beauty and goodness? Are all these themes obsolete because we were able to manipulate some of nature through technological means? What is the value of the whole project of western culture when we would see ourselves as a mere local by-product in evolutionary processes spanning millions of years? If we prove able to consume within the span of 100 years all fossil energy which has been built up over a period of millions of years, then why do we call this progress instead of pillage? Or even stupidity? The blindness in this seems generic and the economic values put to sleep by stressing that this is the right way to live on this earth. In this broad frame I understand Vanmechelen’s project on The Cosmopolitan Chicken, and his idea on the primal chicken. This is an engagement which resembles more that of the brilliant Jan Van Eyck when he forged a synthesis between Humanism and Christianity in his artistic search for sense than mere political analysis, which the media try to lure us into. These are the important themes and the essential choices for humanity of today and tomorrow, and in that sense these themes and choices are the concern of great artists who interpret human interest in earth and humanity. The originality with which Vanmechelen takes us along in this dimension of existence has him stand beyond the rumours and cries of the market phenomenon. And that is excellent. Let us all try to participate in this noble quest and have us put our modest but stern creativity at the service of a civilization where humanity and nature share the Earth in a relationship of respectful conviviality.
The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project: 15 generations of cross-breeds
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Mechelse koekoek Belgium
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Mechelse bresse ccp
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Mechelse redcap ccp
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Mechelse giant ccp
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Mechelse dresdner ccp
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Mechelse uilebaard ccp
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Mechelse louisiana ccp
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Mechelse auracana ccp
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Mechelse denizli ccp
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Mechelse cubalaya ccp
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Mechelse ancona ccp
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Mechelse opЛobckoЙ ccp
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A Poem As Lovely As A Tree By Planting Palms, Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin Merges Love for Nature with Love of Language By Ruland Kolen “The relation with the world that I want is to be putting life back into the world, rather than taking life out of it,” says the American poet W.S. Merwin. The quote applies not just to the vivid beauty of his poems, but also to his remarkable work as a botanist. Over the last three decades, Merwin has planted over 800 palm species, assembling one of the world’s largest and most diverse private plantations. The recently founded Merwin Conservancy now manages that legacy. Merwin, as prolific a poet as he is a planter, straddles the worlds of literature and botany so seamlessly that it’s hard - and pointless - to distinguish between his love for nature and his love for language. How fitting for a life lived on that intersection to be crowned with saving trees. For that is how the journey began for Merwin, eight decades ago in his parents’ backyard. William Stanley Merwin, now 84, remembers his first act of rebellion, when he was still a young boy. Some men came to his parents’ house in Union City, New Jersey to crop the tree in the backyard. “I simply lost my temper and ran out and started beating them. Everybody was so impressed with this outburst of real rage that my father never even punished me.” That tree was special to the young Merwin, who talked to it, a gatekeeper of the natural world that was to be such a great influence on and ingredient of his poetry. Merwin’s career in poetry arguably started at five, when he began composing hymns for his father, a Presbyterian minister. He went on to become one of America’s most distinguished poets and translators. His earlier poems resonate the cultural ferment of postwar America, while his later work is more obviously rooted in his fascination with Buddhism and ecology. Merwin’s bibliography includes over 30 titles of poetry, prose and translation. His body of work, much loved for both its depth and accessibility, earned him two Pulitzer prizes for poetry (in 1971 and 2009), and, from 2010, the title of 17th Poet Laureate of the United States. Decades after his involvement with the anti-Vietnam War protests (he donated the prize money of his first Pulitzer to the draft resistance movement), Merwin’s work remains socially relevant. His poem ‘To the New Year’ was read out in January 2011 at the close of the memorial service for the 9 people killed and 9 wounded in the attempted assassination of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In spite of his literary success, Merwin has never been a big fan of academia, and does not particularly care for the limelight. He has resided on Hawaii since the late 1970s, making a home for himself and his third wife, Paula Schwarz, on an abandoned pineapple plantation atop a dormant volcano. Here, on Maui’s rugged northeastern shore - and, in a beautiful example of poetic coincidence, near the village of Haiku - Merwin’s
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style developed an almost Zen-like indirection, entering into a deep union with nature, more specifically Merwin’s Hawaiian habitat, described in, among others, ‘The Rain in the Trees’ (1988) and ‘Folding Cliffs’ (1998), a verse novel of the history and legend of Hawaii. Even though he lives far from America’s cultural centres, Merwin is hardly a recluse. He still travels widely for readings of his poetry. But the self-built, solar-powered home on Maui provides balance: “I love the city, and I love the country. When I’m in the country, I miss the city some of the time. But when I’m in the city, I miss the country all of the time.” One of the preoccupations binding him to the country, is his dedication to the restoration of Hawaii’s rainforests, which have suffered heavily from centuries of humankind’s encroachment. That dedication to nature is apparent not only in Merwin’s poems, but also in his 19-acre garden, in which he has planted over 800 species of palms from all over the world. In doing so, Merwin transformed what was officially termed a ‘wasteland’ into a tropical palm forest. It took him more than 30 years. Merwin’s dogged devotion to his botanical work has been his way of reflecting on the precarious condition of our ecology: ‘Things here are on a scale that seems human. And living on an island, in the country, in our time, is a constant reminder of the finite condition of the natural world, and of what, from a narrow point of view, are commonly referred to as ‘resources’. There is only so much coasts, so much of anything. It is easy to be aware that everyone lives on an island.’ Merwin’s approach to work, both mental and manual, is reminiscent of the famous Zen saying: ‘Before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.’ Which means, among other things, that ordinary labour may be a way to spiritual development. Except that Merwin is planting trees, not chopping them. And he approaches the reforestation of the Peahi Stream valley with a similarly determined attitude: in doing things the hard way, they will be done the right way. This goes for both the mental and the manual: ‘In gardening, as my wife and I go about it here, what are called concerns - for ecology and the environment, for example merge inevitably with work done every day, within sight of the house, with our own hands, and the concerns remain intimate and familiar rather than far away. They do not have to be thought about, they are at home in the mind. I have never lived anywhere that was more true.’ A true place, but a hard place. The ecological degradation brought on by past deforestation and loss of topsoil makes the work prone to disappointments. Especially since Merwin insists on sustainable development. All green waste has been kept on the property, to become compost for the trees. Once saplings
have been planted out, they receive only rainwater, which is held in cisterns, pumped by gravity and filtered by charcoal, sand and coral for use around the plantation. The only electricity is provided by solar power. There is no air conditioning except by the trade winds, which the house is built to catch. The house, partly built by Merwin himself, used almost no cement; a bulldozer was only brought in to even out a driveway. But the reward is there: the forest itself is changing its surroundings, cooling the temperature, retaining moisture in the soil, facilitating the seeding of future trees. ‘In between twenty-five or thirty years I have planted about 850 species of palms, and at least four or five times that many actual trees,’ says Merwin ‘I have had no map. I have not been able to visit every planting regularly, nor to water them all by hand. Some have been lost to drought. Labels have been lost. But I would guess that well over seven hundred species, and more than three quarters of all the palms that I have set in the ground, have survived. They grow slowly in this poor soil, but some of the older ones, planted in the early eighties, are tall and stately now, and many of them are flowering and dropping viable seed.’ The achievement of turning wasteland into a palm garden is enhanced by the knowledge that the garden contains some very rare specimens indeed: ‘Many endangered species are growing here, and one species in particular, the Hyophorbe indica from Reunion Island, was listed as extinct when Inge Hoffman sent me a few seeds in the 1980s. One remaining tree of the species had been found in the botanical garden on that island, and it had provided those seeds. I managed to grow several trees and eventually began sending the seeds to a palm nursery on the Big Island for distribution, and they are available to tropical gardeners now.’ As a result, the plantation is as close to self-sustaining as Merwin can manage it. And in doing so, he has created both the physical backdrop and the mental landscape for his later writing. Merwin’s palm plantation is the place where Merwin’s ideas about nature and art merge, where his poetry and life become indistinguishable. ‘During rainy spells I try to plant at least one palm every day,’ Merwin says, and this dedication to his botanical work eventually led to the foundation of the Merwin Conservancy, in the summer of 2010. The Conservancy will define the best use for both the Merwin house and his replanted palm forest, working to establish both artistical and botanical residencies, and partnerships with local schools and community groups for land stewardship programmes, and with universities and foundations for creative writing programmes. Motivating the positive achievements and worthy goals of the Merwin Conservancy is the poet’s own grim vision for the future of the world: ‘As a child, I used to have a secret dread - and a
recurring nightmare - of the whole world becoming city, being covered with cement and buildings and streets. No more country. No more woods. It doesn’t seem so remote, though I don’t believe such a world could survive, and I certainly would not want to live in it.’ In his own small, great way, William Stanley Merwin is fighting that future by planting one palm tree at a time. His fascination with trees as psychopomps of the natural world stretches back a long way, perhaps all the way back to that single specimen in his New Jersey backyard. ‘We are absolutely, intimately connected with every living thing. We don’t have to be sentimental and pious about it, but we can’t turn our backs on that fact and survive. When we destroy the socalled natural world around us we’re simply destroying ourselves. And I think it’s irreversible.’ Which is why Merwin hopes to be able to go on planting palms for a long time. ‘I regard what has been done here so far as just a beginning. The upland areas beyond the streambed and on the western side of the valley have scarcely been planted at all, and I hope - we both hope - that the whole of this land can eventually become a palm garden, a palm forest and sanctuary. Just being here, with the garden, the ‘palm forest,’ all around us, day after day, I think has taught me a great deal.’ One remarkable lesson, and a telling one for our species’ impact on the natural world, is the reversal of the role of a garden, says Merwin: ‘Gardens, from the beginning (as the etymology of the word suggests), existed as enclaves designed and maintained to keep out the wilderness, to guard what was inside for human use or pleasure. Once it became possible for human beings to destroy environments anywhere on earth, the situation was turned around, and anyone who wanted to protect and save any remaining bit of the natural environment was acting in the role of a gardener -one whose purpose, at this point, was to keep encroaching human exploitation and disturbance out.’ Long may his garden grow.
For A Coming Extinction
Gray whale Now that we are sending you to The End That great god Tell him That we who follow you invented forgiveness And forgive nothing
Out of the dry days through the dusty leaves far across the valley those few notes never heard here before
I write as though you could understand And I could say it One must always pretend something Among the dying When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks Empty of you Tell him that we were made On another day The bewilderment will diminish like an echo Winding along your inner mountains Unheard by us And find its way out Leaving behind it the future Dead And ours When you will not see again The whale calves trying the light Consider what you will find in the black garden And its court The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless And fore-ordaining as stars Our sacrifices Join your work to theirs Tell him That it is we who are important
one fluted phrase floating over its wandering secret all at once wells up somewhere else and is gone before it goes on fallen into its own echo leaving a hollow through the air that is dry as before where is it from hardly anyone seems to have noticed it so far but who now would have been listening it is not native here that may be the one thing we are sure of it came from somewhere else perhaps alone so keeps on calling for no one who is here hoping to be heard by another of its own unlikely origin trying once more the same few notes that began the song of an oriole last heard years ago in another existence there it goes again tell no one it is here foreign as we are who are filling the days with a sound of our own
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Walking in the footsteps of hunters and gatherers What is it that distinguishes the human being from other animals. In the first two books of his all-embracing world history, holistic historian Marc Vermeersch floats an intriguing hypothesis: ideological reproduction. ‘Human beings cannot reproduce without ideological reproduction.’
By Peter Dupont ‘The Dawn of Man’. A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s key film ‘A Space Odyssey’ that leaves a lasting impression: the birth of man, pictured as the historical aha-erlebnis of an Australopithecus. And his sudden realization that he can wield a sturdy bone to cause havoc and destruction. Fast sceneshifting shows the logical outcome of that powerful feeling: the frenzied crushing of a skeleton, the fall of the first prey, beaten to death, the first killing of the Australopithecus. Ecce homo. A social creature like the chimpanzee, engaging in daily fights for power. A hunter too, meat eating, killer and cannibal. Intelligent, using tools and language. But different from his cousins, the chimp and the bonobo, and blessed with just that little extra: ideology. Kubrick’s ‘Dawn of Man’ and Annaud’s ‘La Guerre du Feu’ inadvertently come to mind on my trip through Marc Vermeersch’s fascinating two books: ‘Van Pan tot Homo Sapiens’ (Pan to Homo Sapiens) and ‘De maatschappij van jagers en verzamelaars’ (The society of hunters and gatherers). The provisional result of the author’s fifteen-year search for answers to the big questions surrounding the provenance and nature of the human being. Vermeersch blends research findings from archeology, (plaeo-)anthropology, ethology, historical linguistics, biology and affiliated sciences to an almost compelling read. The encyclopedist author cuts and puzzles a gargantuan pile of information until it becomes an amazing fresco of the creature that in the course of 99.6% of his existence was preoccupied with one thing only: day-by-day survival. Vermeersch interlaces pure scientific interest with many concrete facts, stories and a lot of attention for everyday life. He drops the reader among the dwarf elephants on Wrangel island, gives him a bow and arrow to scour the shallow coastal waters of the Andaman islands and leaves him staring with disgust at a long wall of skulls on the Fiji islands. The reader lends a ready eye and ear to the expert guide. He has his future partner initiated by male clan members, chews a leathery bar of sea cow, hunts for emu, draws his first penis on a cliff wall and is being skinned by a gang of ferocious Iroquois. The buzz one gets from reading the book, is a feeling of deep amazement at the almost endless diversity within the human species; at the familiar strangeness of the cultures of
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our predecessors, who hold up a confronting mirror to our hic et nunc. A sobering thought finally that lasts: being a woman in those days was no picnic. The inequality in the relationship between man and woman: man has always been dominant. So matriarchy is an illusion? Marc Vermeersch: ‘That’s right. Socially, man and woman have always been unequal, also among hunters and gatherers. Male violence against women was normal, as it is among chimpanzees. Woman as the property of man. The latter maintaining his dominance through male alliances, violence and all kinds of myths, rites and habits. They gave his leading position an ideological underpinning. That’s why boys at the beginning of their initiation rites were taken away from their mothers to be instructed in all-male groups. Some cultures took this to great lengths.’ Have you encountered any appealing relational models among certain old cultures? ‘No, what did surprise me was the occurrence of arranged marriages among Australian cultures. One of the world’s most primitive societies turned out to be organized to a very strict degree. The power of man was complete. Women could be presented to others sometimes in a gesture of reconciliation or they could be lent to visitors or friends. As long as they belonged to the same marriage class, that is. A married woman who had misbehaved, by looking at sacred places or objects for example, would become joint property for a while.’ The age-old practice of group weddings survived until our nineteenth century. But also hunters and gatherers were already coupling. ‘Because it did offer clear benefits. Love and sex had a practical outcome. Men got more sex, women got more food and help in raising children. Social fatherhood meant that children were better protected. Coupling still appears to be the best option for modern man. All alternative experiments have more or less failed. If monogamy today is often serial, that is incidental, though normal. If social pressures are absent, serial monogamy is the more natural situation you end up with.’ An example from days of yore? ‘The Buid, a tribe on the Filippine island of Mindoro, allowed women to possess their own land,
which promoted equality but also increased divorce. People got married about four times on average. Ten times even, often to the same man or woman. Having an argument was sufficient to get a divorce. The same is happening in our society right now. Setlling in peaceful Buid society, a couple that spent a lifetime together was more prosperous, had more children and could also rely on those children more often for mutual help.’ Never before has equality between man and woman been as profound as today. Taking a historical perspective, do you understand the tolerant attitude towards reintroducing headscarves for women? ‘Certainly, the battle for women’s rights is never over. Male dominance is a fact of nature wrapped in a cultural veneer. Woman has long been the possession of man. There’s no other way around interpreting the female headscarf therefore than as a symbol of her subservient position towards man. This inequality is making its way into our society via islam. The fact that people appear to accept it so easily shows that some seem to be quite willing to stretch their idea of tolerance to accommodate this atavistic unfairness.’ On a different note: is religion a product of our brain? ‘Absolutely not, even though some scientists continue to claim as much. Tracing the biological roots of culture, philosophers like the French René Girard or historians of religion like the Romanian Mircea Eliade have never been able to explain where religion fits into the picture. Focusing on religious diversity for the past hundred years has complicated matters. Giving no consideration to the origin of religion, biology, before it started to shatter in a thousand cultural forms at the pace of Homo sapiens’s exodus from Africa. Our specific ideas on religion are part of culture, but ideology is a biological product and religion is a component of human ideology.’ What is this fact of nature you refer to? ‘In all species biology revolves around reproduction; in the development of mankind a new element emerges after seven million years of continuous evolution in eastern Africa. After his brains developed, after he started walking upright and developed speech. Three changes that allowed the human being to reproduce more successfully. Ideas are the product of speech that can be
passed on. At a certain time man was no longer able to reproduce without simultaneously reproducing his ideas as well. Hunters and gatherers were very knowledgeable about plants, animals, tools, social structures etc. … this knowledge had to be passed down the generations. Religion is both an aspect of that knowledge and a means to transfer it. This started with the ancestral cult among hunters and gatherers: a cult that served to consolidate the union of the human community, reinforcing the continuity of the clan. It also offered consolation though that was only secondary. Man cannot reproduce without ideological reproduction.’ Religion has many gains, but also high costs. ‘And those could be quite heavy. Some cultures believed that the death of a clan member was caused by evil forces called up by another clan. Punitive expeditions followed, the start of a lethal vicious circle. Some Australian tribes, for example, assigned a man, the Kurdaitcha, with the task to kill the alleged culprit.’ Would you say man is first and foremost a religious animal? ‘Ideology is what distinguishes us from other animals most of all. All other former definitions, such as the ability to make tools, have failed. No other species has ever shown any development towards reproducing ideas. Although chimpanzees do have a great capacity for language.’ How can we really know what lies hidden inside the skull of our distant ancestors? ‘Chimpanzees and bonobos offer an interesting frame of reference. And then there’s also a number of isolated groups: direct descendants of the original black population that migrated via the Horn of Africa to South east Asia and Oceania. Right through the then swampland of the Persian Gulf. We still find these groups in India, Papua New Guinea, Melanisia, the Andaman islands, Malaysia and the Philippines.’ Can the start of ideological reproduction be pinned down in time? ‘That’s very hard to do. I think this must have been a process that took millions of years. From the Ardipithicus already, who lived 5.8 to 4.4 million years BP (Before Present, 1950), “something” might have been present. A chimpanzee can utter five sounds, an Aripithicus could utter four
times as many. Once you’re able to produce 100 sounds, you’ve taken a giant step, also in terms of reasoning. Which is why I think that language is much older than the 50,000 years recorded officially, as was stated up until five years ago. Now we know that a whole range of cultural phenomena such as religion, self-mutilation and smashing out teeth existed long before the exodus from Africa. Richard Leakey calls war a perversion of the “deeply human drive to cooperate”. You identify a killer instinct in our genes, a necessity for hunting. ‘Violence is something we inherited from our biological past. It’s endemic in all societies, also those of hunters and gatherers. They also knew ritualised confrontations, like yelling parties and mock attacks and there were more peaceful periods and areas. Real confrontations, however, were brutal. Male adults were hardly ever taken prisoner, they were usually butchered to death.’ Did the introduction of horticulture and cattle breeding change these gruesome habits? ‘No, killing was still what counted. Tens of thousands of years. Quite often only the arrival of Europeans ended a tradition of ruthless and cruel violence between indigenous peoples, without ignoring the fact that Europeans themselves were often very violent in their campaigns to subject these peoples. An example of pacification can be found among the Waorani tribe who lived at the foot of the Andes. There were only 500 of them, but they were so violent that they controlled an area of 12,430 square miles in the rain forest. They were living in continuous conflicts with the neighbouring Quechua. Only after the arrival of missionaries did violence disappear on a large scale. The same happened among the hunters and gatherers along America’s north west coast. Although these slave societies underwent their main permanent changes as a result of diseases.’
Mirning tribe in south west Australia, a child was sometimes starved to death. The Luritcha tribe in central Australia were likely to kill very small children and feed them to older children who suffered health problems. Australian cultures believed that the soul of the child that had been killed would be reborn to the same mother. To my astonishment ideologically motivated infanticide still exists today. Earlier this year an Indian man beheaded his ten-year-old granddaughter and mixed her blood with seed-corn. That was supposed to convince the gods to yield a good harvest.’ Why did early man produce art? ‘My hypothesis is that art is a side product of the characteristics that are needed for reproduction. That is why three points of interest always merge in the earliest forms of art: human beings (reproduction), animals (food) and a substantial tendency to appreciate forms, colours, patterns and vegetatian that could also serve as food.’ Speaking of animals: from goannas and giant wombats to teratorus and smilodon up to Cape horse and giant buffalo. The arrival of mankind seemed to announce the end of megafauna everywhere? ‘Megafauna became extinct on all continents except Africa. My theory is that the fact that Homo sapiens developed exactly on this continent is no coincidence. Megafauna had the time to adapt to man. In North America the megafauna could not become accustomed gradually to the peoples that arrived from Asia via the Bering Strait. Especially island fauna are utterly defenceless against hunters that suddenly emerge from outside. It took longer in Australia, at least ten to twenty thousand years. Australians used arms that were far less sophisticated.’
Would you say there is a significant umbilical cord that connects hunters and gatherers, on the one hand, and modern man on the other? ‘I would, absolutely. I was surprised to find that many practices that have been around for ages still occur today. Things like exorcism, cannibalism and infanticide, a cultural factor that keeps a check on the size of a population. Among the
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John Gray on the magical bridge between science and religion
Against science as a miracle machine Science will not save the day for Homo Sapiens. Because man cannot change his nature, and scientists are not magicians. In his new book ‘The Immortality Commission’ the British philosopher John Gray puts science and human beings in their proper place: with two feet firmly placed in the here and now.
By Peter Dupont Man is a mortal animal, but never mind that: science and technology will soon give us the tools to become older and healthier than any mortal ever was in the turbulent history of our planet. According to the American futurist Raymond Kurzweil, the knowledge explosion will lead to a fusion of human and artificial intelligence in a few decades. Man will shake off his mortal biology, and scientists will be one million times more intelligent. In this post-human era, the man-machine hybrid will live in a virtual life after death. The ‘human condition’ will finally be overcome, and heaven on earth will finally be a reality. As trans-humanist Kurzweil knows, immortality is indeed our fate. So do not worry about the population explosion, ecocide and pandemics. Dwindling supplies of raw materials, climate change or poverty: don’t let them keep you awake. As the British science journalist Matt Ridley stated in his book ‘The Rational Optimist’ last year: “There is no reason for us to worry. The future only holds the promise of improvement. Not long from now, man will finally transcend earthly limitations.’ The caterpillar will turn into a butterfly in the 21st century. The British philosopher John Gray (1948), observer and student of human follies, has been unmasking what he calls the dangerous disillusionment of the human animal, for years. Gray has an outstanding reputation as an idiosyncratic thinker. He has refuted or debunked many of the most cherished beliefs about human identity. He has unmasked ideas of liberalism, humanism, global capitalism and scientific advances in books like ‘Straw Dogs’ and ‘Provocations’ as fantasies that conceal the true nature of the human animal. According to Gray, therefore, the future only promises a repetition of the past. Not a replication, but a variation on the same theme. Except that, thanks to science and technology, man will be equipped with increasingly better equipment to leave his devastating mark on his environment. The phlegmatic Brit illustrates his belief with verve and depth in his latest book, ‘The Immortality Commission’. He supports his ideas by means of two early 20th-century attempts to deceive death via (pseudo-) science. Thus he tells the story of a group of Edwardian intellectuals bitten by Spiritism, who obsessively searched for life
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after death. The other attempt to beat the Grim Reaper was conducted by Communist scientists in the glorious new Soviet state. They attempted to transform man on a scientific basis and believed that they could bring the dead back to life. It was around the fin de siècle, so Gray begins his book, that science became the vehicle for an unprecedented attack on the death. Knowledge would rid man of his mortality. A conviction that was fed by Darwin’s insupportable message that humans, like other species, are ultimately heading for extinction. And that is why there was a relentless search in Britain, for scientific evidence of the paranormal. Psychic researchers fascinated the elite for decades with their studies. Even prominent scientists such as Nobel Laureate Lord Rayleigh and Alfred Russell Wallace, codiscoverer of natural selection, converted to spiritualism. In Russia as well, occultism and science melted together into one powerful, but much more brutal weapon against mortality. Within the Bolshevik intelligentsia, there emerged a group of enlightened people who believed that death would soon be overcome. This ‘God-builders’ wanted to destroy human nature in order to rebuild it all over again. Many millions of deaths later. ‘Science and Occultism found each other in these two streams’, Gray says stated during a meeting at the International School of Philosophy in Dutch Leusden. ‘In a struggle to acquire eternal life. This was hardly surprising: scientific empiricism was often associated with an interest in magic. Currently it is no different.’ Where do you see that magical thinking in our society? ‘To give an example: in techno-immortality, a belief reflected in such cryogenic suspension. I see it in the freezing of clinically dead people. But also in the consumption of low-calorie diets in order to live longer. I also find it in immortalism, process theology, in meliorism, and in the unshakable belief in scientific theories. Although history has taught us that dominant theories are often proved to be false later on. They are just tools that help us deal with the world at some point. Until we find better tools. Our society fosters a deep faith that science will resolve issues that cannot be solved, or that they cannot solve. Science promises to fulfil the oldest human fantasies: doing away with disease and aging, poverty and scarcity.’ On what do you base that parallel between science and magic?
‘The ultimate goal of scientific research is often to escape from the laws of nature. To provide the human animal with a unique status amongst other animals. That’s what I call a magical wish. As stated, the blending of science and magic is well-established in our contemporary culture. And that is not illogical. Science has never been able to fulfil the needs that religion can satisfy. Inevitably, science therefore becomes a vehicle for new myths that assign the same kind of meaning through other concepts. A springboard to salvation, so to speak. Contemporary man cherishes the naive belief that he can impose his will on the reality of which he is a part. A delusion brought about by centuries of Western religious thought.’ You are saying that the absurdities of faith are less offensive to reason than are the statements made against science. That sounds a bit harsh. ‘This is one of the statements for which I am strongly criticised. I mean, it’s more difficult to believe that science will improve the human destiny than that God will welcome you, as a believer, to his throne after your death. The latter is reasonable because it does not rely on evidence but on a miracle. It’s about faith. The first claim relies on evidence, although there is a lot of historical evidence to the contrary. Science has not fundamentally improved the life of man. It is true that a small part of the world is richer and lives more comfortably. But science has, above all, led to more destruction and more death and more efficient killing. It is no coincidence that the twentieth century was the most violent ever.’ Is that true? ‘I mean, not only in terms of international wars, but also of governments that use force on their own citizens. That’s not correct, retort some people. In their time, did not the Spanish conquistadors exterminate a proportionate part of the world population in America? Not true: it was the diseases that European immigrants brought with them that decimated the Native Americans. The 20th century was the century’s most gruesome century ever, thanks to scientific progress. Read ‘Blood Country’, the excellent book by the historian Timothy Snyder. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis and Soviets killed 14 million people in Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States, the so-called Blood Countries. And that was only possible because science had come up with inventions like telephones, radios, trains and highly efficient machinery of destruction.’
But surely you cannot blame science itself for that? ‘But I am not doing that. Science has fostered a lot of good, but also creates opportunities for unprecedented destruction and suffering. It gave people the opportunity to destroy their natural habitat in an unprecedented manner. We should not delude ourselves: science will never be used to improve the lot of mankind. Specific groups also want to improve their own lot along with it. Like the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which in 1995 manufactured and used the nerve gas sarin to kill twelve people and cause injury to thousands of others. Many young scientists were members of Aum. More science and technology will not substantially change man, but they will indeed become part of the eternal human conflict. Biological weapons that commit genocide on a large scale: I am sure that they are already being developed right now.’ You have also stated that religion will not improve the future of humanity. You’re an atheist, but not a fundamentalist like Richard Dawkins. ‘Certainly not. There is no reason to assume that man will one day stop being a religious animal. No matter what liberal humanists might think. They wrongly regard religion as a primitive theory. I consider some of them, like Richard Dawkins, to be as intolerant as a Christian fundamentalist. Look, science has not been able to bring forth the hope and world vision that religion produces. Religion feeds our need for meaning, while science our need for control. But as long as religion is not harmful, why not go in for it if you are looking for meaning? I am strongly opposed to all the secular traditions that try to erase all traces of religion. Any attempt to do so, as in the atheistic, totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, has led to the emergence of secular post-Christian cults. But liberal humanism has ultimately proved to be the most successful.’ And the reason? ‘Because it is partly based on the Christian tradition and uses science as an argument. It fosters the idea that ethics and morality evolve in step with science. A myth. Secular faiths such as communism or capitalism have only traded the myths of religion for others. At present, they are steadily losing support, which is why religion has made such a comeback. Science, like religion, is an attempt at transcendence that ends with an acceptance of a world that is beyond our understanding. Reason and faith ultimately encounter the mani-
festation of the absurd. But religion at least recognises the limitations of human nature.’
Now to something else altogether: how do you see the organisation of social life evolving in the 21st century? ‘It is possible that human activity will be concentrated in colossal cities. The countryside as we know it will disappear. Cities, as part of human ecology, offer a lot more opportunities. I think this trend is almost inevitable and offers advantages for nature. The human animal will become an urban animal for the first time in its history. There will be mostly wilderness outside the cities.’
Political philosopher John Gray (63) is emeritus professor of European intellectual history at the London School of Economics. He is the author of several books: ‘The Immortality Committee,’ the acclaimed ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘Al-Qaeda and the Modern Era’, ‘Provocations’, ‘False Dawn’, ‘Black Mass’ and ‘Gray’s Anatomy’. Regular articles also appear under Gray’s hand in The Guardian, New Statesman and The Times Literary Supplement. Gray worked at the University of Oxford. He was a visiting professor at Harvard University, Tulane University’s Murphy Institute and Yale University, and was Stranahan Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Centre of Bowling Green State University.
Will science have called a halt to climate change in the meantime? ‘Many climate scientists and environmentalists want to believe that. We can stop that process if we show that industrialisation is the cause of climate change. By using biofuels, renewable energy, geo-engineering, and so on. I don’t agree with any of it. What is happening now is a consequence of roughly 200 years of human activity. It’s unstoppable, the world is not a Swiss clock. Science and technology can, at best, help us adapt to the changing climate.’ Can man still play a role in the remediation of global warming? ‘Man can hardly give up on this. Our species is incorrigibly and irrationally optimistic, which has always helped us to survive. We are culturally as well as genetically programmed to do so. That simultaneously gives us the feeling that we are important on this planet and that we control our own lives. No matter what - man will react in this manner. Some groups will try to obtain an advantage from the attempt to take control of the impact of climate change. I think we should not waste our time trying to stop the inevitable. Our intention must be intelligent adaptation.’ You end your book with an almost poetic plea for the acceptance of our mortality. ‘There is nothing more deadly than not being able to die’. ‘Change, chaos and death make our planet the gem that it is. We are part of it, whether we like it or not. And that’s by no means such a bad thing – quite the contrary. Let nature take its course. Immortality is what I call the fading soul projected onto a white screen. You can find far more beauty in a falling leaf.’
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Neurological deficiencies in famous artists
The murder of the creative brain Swiss neurologist Julien Bogousslavsky has published his third book on neurological deficiencies in distinguished artists, writers and thinkers. A fascinating view behind the gallery of glitter and immortality. By Peter Dupont Paul Klee (1879 - 1940) suffered from the worst form of the autoimmune disease sclerodermia. The later work of the Swiss-German artist betrays his mute fear for this illness, but also his hopes and ultimate resignation. In the painting ‘Tod und Feuer’ (1940) the mouth, nose and eyes of the ashen male head spell the word Tod. Klee’s farewell to everything precious to him in an oppressive word picture. Five centuries before Klee, ‘uomo universale’ Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had to cope with hemiparesis the last five years of his life: the muscles in the right part of his body were paralysed. Possibly his vegetarian lifestyle was partly to blame. Because of his love for non-human animals da Vinci would not eat anything that contained blood. He possibly paid for his principles by putting his life on the line. Fast forward again, closer to our own horizon of experience, to nineteenth-century, pre-revolutionary Russia. Suffering temporal lobe epilepsy, Russian writer Fjodr Dostojewski (1821 – 1881) introduced a whole range of epilepsy patients in his books. The auras accompanying the epileptic seizures are assumed to have contributed considerably to Dostojewski’s mystic inclination. 130 years past his death the mysticism continues to draw hordes of readers.
Bullet Klee, Dostojewski and da Vinci: they are just a few of dozens of famous ‘creative people’ who feature in the brilliant series of Swiss neurologist Julien Bogousslavsky, ‘Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists’. The first volume was prompted five years ago by the biographical reports of the French-Polish-Italian poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Never before had anyone observed the link between Apollinaire’s head injury, a kiss by a German bullet in 1916, and the poet’s sudden, dramatic change of personality. ‘My interest in neurology and art took me to Paris for a publication on Apollinaire in the journal Revue Neurologique,’ Bogousslavsky explains. ‘I was fascinated by the poet; I had read his biographies and discovered he had been injured in the First World War. And that the radical metamorphosis of his personality had been caused by a psychological trauma incurred during the war. That seemed worth a trip to Paris to me. Yet once I got there my research showed that this was only part of the cause: Apollinaire suffered a brain injury. Fortunately, many documents survived the ravages of
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time, including Apollinaire’s helmet. I managed to retrieve them at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. It was fascinating to see that this poetic icon had incurred an injury in a particular area of the brain; and that his personality change surprisingly resembled those in other people with a similar injury.’ Apollinaire’s metamorphosis after the bullet incident was complete and unexpected. Three days after suffering the blow, which he downplayed as not very serious in his letters, he was treated by a paediatrician in Paris. She accurately described the symptoms of what Bogousslavsky recognized as an intracranial abscess or brain abscess: an accumulation of pus surrounded by brain tissue. ‘It’s a rare affliction caused by a bacteria, an injury or an operation. I suspect that the poet suffered a chronic subdural hematoma afterwards,’ says Bogousslavsky. ‘In the months that followed, a very different Apollinaire emerged: the man got irritated very quickly, was distracted, humourless and restless. He was prone to emotional outbursts and endless bouts of sadness, without falling into a depression. The tone of his passionate letters to his fiancée Madeleine Pagès changed fundamentally and after four months he even stopped writing to her altogether.’ Gui and Madeleine: c’était l’amour morte. He would never see her again, until the time of his death, three years later, when he succumbed to the Spanish flu. Oddly enough, the poet’s artistic work was not affected by his illness. ‘As was to be expected,’ the Swiss neurologist explains, ‘The areas of his brain responsible for creativity were not damaged. His creative talents were spared.’ The Apollinaire case put Bogousslavsky on the right track to explore the topic in more detail. He began to search his memory for other wellknown artists with a neurological problem. ‘They weren’t very hard to find. Both very famous and only locally known artists, besides writers and thinkers. Also people that could still be studied in vivo. My colleague and compatriot François Boller suggested many new cases and this quickly produced a collection of new data. Professor Boller co-edited the volume and many other scientists contributed.’ In all, the first volume presents 18 papers by 15 different authors. They discuss the often overlooked, ignored or unknown sides of a number of renowned artists, musicians, philosophers and authors. ‘Creative characters’ such as Edgar Allan Poe (epilepsy), Alphonse Daudet (syphilis), Guy de Maupassant (syphilis), Friedrich Nietzsche (syphilis), Maurice Ravel (Pick’s disease) and Immanuel Kant (dementia). But also less known, though scientifically equally
interesting figures like Carolus Horn (Alzheimer), Paul-Elie Gernez (aphasia) and the French author Valery Larbaud (1881 – 1957), the father of the cosmopolitan novel. Suffering a stroke in 1935, he was diagnosed with aphasia or language disorder, and hemiplegia of the right limbs, a partial paralysis. Later this illness developed into a disorder in Broca’s area, that part of the brain which is associated with the motor or output aspects of speech. ‘At a certain moment Larbaud was only able to utter one single sentence: ‘Bonsoir, les choses d’ici-bas’ (Goodbye, material things of this earth, PD). Although stereotypical utterances are frequent in people with this anomaly, this is quite an exceptional case,’ says Julien Bogousslavsky. ‘Perhaps even unique. For the author Larbaud it meant the end of his literary production. Although his memory and intellectual capacities remained intact, aphasia destroyed Larbaud’s literary language root and branch. Utterly tragic.’
Syphilis Some afflictions are clearly time-bound. Guy de Maupassant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Alphonse Daudet as well as Heinrich Heine and numerous German composers suffered from syphilis. A sexually transmitted disease that rose to a devastating epidemic before the invention of penicillin in 1940. The shame of its time, leaving dire traces in the literary production and lives of, a.o., Nietzsche, Daudet and De Maupassant. All three of them also went through the three stages of the illness, from a painless ulcer to chronic pain and ultimately neurosyphilis: Tabes dorsalis in Daudet and general paresis in Nietzsche and De Maupassant. The latter both ended their lives in an institution. The first could not part with his urine because it supposedly contained diamonds and jewels. He whined and licked his cell walls. The German philosopher drank his urine, smeared his excreta on the wall of his room and was troubled by hallucinations. To the die-hard womanizer Alphonse Daudet, syphilis would mean a descent into a hell of pain and loneliness. His central nervous system was affected, which also caused paralysis. His posthumously published book La Doulou is a grim account of his experience with insufferable pain. A litany of sorrow not unlike a plot of a modern horror movie. Neither morphine nor other treatments were to any avail. Only escaping into the imagination and fiction would bring temporary relief. In many artists, neurological disorders dramatically changed their artistic output. The French composer Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) lost his creativity because of a wasting neurological ill-
ness. ‘The Antwerp neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Erik Baeck suspects that Pick’s disease completely destroyed Ravel’s creativity,’ says Bogousslavsky. ‘We’ll never be completely sure because after Ravel’s death on 28 December 1937, no autopsy was performed after his skull was opened. Still, there are enough indications that point in the direction of Pick’s disease.’ This form of dementia has a broad range of divergent symptoms, like personality changes, problems of concentration, speech problems, changes in sexual behaviour and even a changed diet. To the composer this range of symptoms meant the end of his story. Some scientists think that the endlessly repetitious theme of his ballet masterpiece Boléro is a sign of his illness. Just like the very particular style of his ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’, which Ravel composed for the one-armed Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. ‘But there are no proofs of this,’ says Bogousslavsky. ‘What is certain is that the illness extinguished his artistic flame. Ravel complained at the end of his life that he still had so much left to say, that there was still so much music in his head. But his ballet Morgane and his opera Jeanne d’Arc would never find their way to paper.’ Bogousslavsky’s first book was received remarkably well. Also among non-scientists. ‘This book got the best sales figures of all three of my books,’ Bogousslavsky says, clearly amused. ‘After having contact with Michael Hennerici, neurologist at the Universität Heidelberg, I realized that there was enough material for a second book. And also that book sold very well. Just like the third book, which appeared this year. Books two and three together cover almost fifty people whose extraordinary creativity shaped part of our artistic cultural universe. I have not yet planned a fourth one, but there would be about six chapters already that could be included in another volume if it were to be published. I do wonder whether a new book could really develop a new concept. Because the books are not really an easy read for the average reader, I’m thinking of publishing a more popularized version on the most ‘interesting’ cases. But reworking and simplifying all the material takes a lot of time.’
Creativity One of the most stimulating concepts in Bogousslavsky’s work is the ‘triggering’ of creativity after a brain injury. A positive consequence of something that is by definition negative. In some artists the urge to create is so strong that they can even overcome their strongest constraints. The injury would make them change their style, for
example, but at the same time preserve their artistic integrity and quality. Bogousslavsky: ‘The human brain’s plasticity is mind-boggling. There are also ordinary people who turn into artists after suffering brain damage. We haven’t studied this concept extensively, but it is truly a fascinating observation. I wouldn’t go as far as assigning a specific circuit in the brain to creative souls. There might be such an area in every human being. But until now it was quite fashionable to regard a neurological problem in an artist as the beginning of the end, as an exclusively negative change. Especially in the third part we focus on geniuses who successfully fought an acute or chronic neurological illness. People like Dimitri Shostakovich (ALS), Clara Wieck-Schumann (chronic pain), Hugo Wolf (syphilis) and Blaise Pascal (visual migraine). Or those who in a dynamic and paradoxically creative manner incorporated their clinical affliction in their artistic production, like Paul Klee or Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who kept a remarkable and unique diary after suffering a stroke.’ The famous Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878 – 1947) euphemistically referred to the stroke that affected him at the age of 65 as ‘the adventure’. He was nevertheless able to continue writing his diary, recording and analysing his cognitive-emotional changes with an extraordinary depth, subtlety and precision. Ramuz’s linguistic and motoric dysfunctioning disappeared after a few weeks already, but left him with a feeling of emptiness and flatness. ‘As if someone else is living inside me, a devil,’ he wrote. His character had changed fundamentally: he was quickly irritated, anxious and tired, suffered from concentration problems and extreme depression. Ramuz felt as if he had been cut off from his creativity and inspiration. But still he resumed his literary vigor in 1944, just a few months after ‘the adventure’, and seemingly without showing any impact on his style or the quality of his literature. Bogoussavsky: ‘To me Ramuz is the most interesting case in all three books. Until his death he remained worried by the accident that had transformed him to such a degree. The diary he left is a unique document with invaluable information on the subjective emotional and cognitive experience that a stroke may produce. Ramuz describes a dream of an old man who puts a revolver to his head and pulls the trigger. ‘I could feel the bullet pass through my brain. Amazing.’
Reuterswärd (°1934). His work Non-Violence, an oversized knotted gun which sits outside the United Nations building in New York, is better known than its creator. ‘At the age of 55 Reuterswärd was left mute and aphasic after a stroke and his right hand, the hand he used for sculpting, was completely paralysed. To continue working, he learned to use his left hand. He did not learn to speak or walk again. That didn’t really interest him all that much. No, Reuterswärd learned to write, draw and paint again. It’s fascinating to see how his style had changed entirely afterwards. For the better in my view: his style is wilder, more attractive, schematic and innovative. Reuterswärd had to change hemispheres. His drawings bear the imprint of this: his first, new works resemble drawings by a three-year-old toddler, his last are those of an artistic genius.’ Bogousslavsky admits that the three books do not answer one of the most fascinating questions surrounding the ‘how’ of human creativity. ‘They are a kind of impetus to analysing the creative mystery in extraordinarily creative people, all of whom have influenced our ways of thinking in one way or another. The lives and creative output of some of them were destroyed entirely, in others they were changed and in a third group the pathology produced something quite new and beautiful. Our books illuminate why a particular artist developed the way he did. Other research would still have to expose the complex relationship between cerebral dysfunctioning and behaviour in artists who are still alive, by focusing on their sudden change in creativity. The brain does not have a creativity centre; the impact of local brain damage on the complete human being continues to baffle the observer.’
Non-violence Another figure in Bogousslavsky’s personal top five is the Swedish painter-sculptor Carl Fredrik
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Manifest Destiny Beyond the Moon
‘Directed panspermia’: spreading life through the Universe, or killing it? By Frank Jacobs Nomen est omen. Michael Noah Mautner wants to build Arks to save life on Earth. But the American chemistry professor doesn’t actually want to save life on Earth, rather from it. Mautner proposes building interstellar Arks, for “[w]e have the moral obligation to seed the Universe with life.” Don’t cancel your newspaper subscription just yet, though: you aren’t invited. Instead of sending humans, Mautner proposes ‘directed panspermia’ - sending microbial life that may one day create advanced, intelligent beings, genome-driven and carbon-based like us, but in forms and shapes undreamt of today. Is Mautner’s plan a blueprint for the explosive growth of biodiversity throughout the galaxy? Or will it, contrary to promised precautions, wipe out preexisting life? Here’s something to put your own personal ambitions and dreams of the future in perspective: one day, for sure, all life on Earth will end. That end may come relatively soon, whether through man-made disasters like nuclear war or climate change, or through supervolcanoes, meteorite showers, or other natural catastrophes. Even if we dodge all those bullets, the Sun’s scheduled suicide kicks in 500 million years from now, wrecking the Earth by boiling away the oceans until our planet’s surface resembles that of Mars. “[T]he last living cell on Earth will one day
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wither and die,” Mautner intones, “[b]ut that doesn’t mean that all is lost. What if we had the chance to sow the seeds of terrestrial life throughout the universe, to settle young planets within developing solar systems many light-years away, and thus give our long evolutionary line the chance to continue indefinitely?” This is a question Mautner has been pondering for some time. It may be tangential to his day job, as Research Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University. But the list of his research interests includes astrochemistry, astroecology, astroethics, and the future of life. Mautner has written over 160 research papers on, among other subjects, the biology of meteorites, the fertility of extraterrestrial soils, human cloning, and s pace colonisation, and published a book called Seeding the Universe with Life: Securing Our Cosmological Future (2000). He is the founder, in 1995, of The Interstellar Panspermia Society (1) - The Society for Life in Space (SOLIS), and a board member of The Lifeboat Foundation (2). At face value, Mautner’s panspermia idea sounds absurdly far-fetched, like something out of a cheap science fiction paperback. Maybe that’s because we are too used to limit our thinking to the confines of the Earth, as if our imagination itself were subject to gravity. In fact, panspermia - originally the idea that life can spread throughout the Universe by piggybacking on meteors and asteroids - has been proposed by such em-
inent scientists as Lord Kelvin (in the 1870s), Chandra Wickramasinghe and Francis Crick (both in the latter half of the 20th century). More recently, Stephen Hawking spoke not only of panspermia as a plausible mechanism for the spread of life throughout the Universe, but also of humankind’s need to go into space to avoid extinction. One can’t help thinking that, in aiming for the stars, secular man mimics his religious counterpart, exchanging an event horizon limited by his own mortality with one that is truly ‘universal’. But panspermia is more than a figment of our secular re-imagination of the absolute. It is a scientific theory that has been tried, tested and depending on who you talk to - proven. We ourselves might be less ‘local’ than we think. One version holds that life on Earth itself is exogenetic (i.e. originated elsewhere), and may have arrived, in microbial form, on meteorites that were blasted off the surface of Mars millions of years ago. That would make us all, essentially, Martians (3). To test this theory, a team from MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences now proposes to send a forensic instrument to the Martian surface to look for DNA, to see if any that is found matches up with our own. This might, among other things, help determine how risky Martian microbes would be to human colonists. For the distances and purposes that con-
cern Mautner, however, human colonists would not be the right candidates. For any distance beyond Mars (4), human space travel becomes impractical, c.q. impossible. Mautner therefore proposes to send out vessels filled with self-sustaining ecosystems, which would consist of algae, bacteria and other microorganisms. Each launched vessel, their decadesor centuries-long voyage powered by solar winds, would be aimed at nearby stars and star-forming zones. And each would contain dozens, or even hundreds of separate containers, as a life-giving antipode of a clusterbomb: each single capsule would be capable of seeding individual planets in young solar systems with the building blocks for life. Eventually, intelligent, self-aware life may evolve. It will not know about us - it would not recognise us as its ancestor - but it would be based on the same basic principle as us: genomedriven, carbon-based. The technology for directed panspermia (5) does not need to be invented. It already exists. We have the launch capacity. Our knowledge of heavenly bodies is increasing exponentially. Less than 25 ago, we hadn’t detected a single planet beyond our own solar system. Now we know the location, size and composition of over 530 exoplanets. Most of them are gas giants, but as our observations grow more precise, an increasing number will be Earth-like, and able to support Earth-like life (6).
Distance - ultimately, travel time (7) - is an issue, but only if you consider the human angle. Which we shouldn’t, says Mautner: “Seeding distant planets with life is the ultimate altruism, bearing results long after the generations that implement it. The ethical motivation for such a program must recognise the unique position of complex, self-propagating organic Life in Nature; the unity of all organic, cellular DNA/protein life, from microbes to humans and post-humans; and, consequently, the primary human purpose, to safeguard and propagate our life-form.” But one life-form’s altruism may be another’s epidemic. Mautner’s vision, though ‘post-human’, is very ‘Earth-centric’. It echoes Manifest Destiny, the young American state’s self-declared purpose of filling the ‘void’ between its western borders and the Pacific Ocean with its cultural paradigm - i.e. with its people, customs, religion, economy and government. This was not a simple case of giving a land without people to a people without land; it involved the disenfranchisement, displacement, defeat and decimation of the original inhabitants. Often this was done by brute, military force. Evidence suggests, however, that most of the ‘clearing’ was performed by viruses. Up to 90% of North America’s native population may have succumbed to the diseases unwittingly imported by the colonists and travelling ahead of them, easing their conquest of the continent. Could directed panspermia be yet another hol-
ocaust in the guise of lofty idealism? Mautner claims to minimise the risk by aiming his Arks at interstellar clouds where stars and planetary systems are newly forming. Also, the vessels could be equipped with detection technology that would abort seeding worlds already ‘occupied’ by other life-forms. Even to the lay observer, that seems like a recipe for disaster. What if that technology, having travelled thousands of years, malfunctions? What if the other life-forms are so alien that our technology can’t comprehend, let alone detect them? Life adopts a diversity of strategies, techniques and shapes to fill the evolutionary niches with which it finds itself confronted. But no matter how varied those solutions, quite often something else had the same idea earlier. Only rarely are those evolutionary niches truly empty. The story of life therefore is a catalogue of expansion at the expense of the other. Should we promote ourselves - or our carbon-based way of life, to be more precise - if it harms other types of existence? Are we all the diversity the universe needs, or are we merely part of a much greater, pre-existing variety? Or is it just a simple case of us versus them? For anyone who’s read anything about civilisation and colonisation, the questions sound familiar. The quest to launch our world’s own cosmic version of Manifest Destiny provides it with a poignant, truly universal new urgency.
(1) www.panspermia-society.com (2) The Lifeboat Foundation is an ngo dedicated to help humankind survive existential risks (e.g. viruses, nanotechnolog y, meteorites, etc.) by researching long-term, large-impact solutions like space colonisation or the Singularity. See: www.lifeboat. com (3) This is not as improbable as it may sound. About 1 billion tonnes or rock from Mars have crashed into Earth. Research has shown that certain types of bacteria - extremophiles - can withstand the atmospheric void and otherwise lethal radiation levels of space. And the debate continues (i.e. the
possibility remains) that Martian microbes have already been detected (in 1996) in ALH 84001, the Alan Hills Martian meteorite discovered in 1984 in Antarctica. (4) In the best of circumstances, a single trip to Mars would take about 250 days. (5) As in: specifically targeting promising areas of our galaxy, not the naturally occurring, undirected panspermia-by-meteorite. (6) The Kepler Space Telescope, equipped with a 1m-diameter photometer, is the first NASA mission able to look for exoplanets in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ (at a distance from a star where planet
surfaces can have liquid water). In March of this year, it discovered Kepler-10b, at 1.4 times the size of Earth the smallest exoplanet yet. As Kepler-10b orbits its star at a distance 20 times closer than Mercury to our sun, it is not in the habitable zone. Astronomers are expecting boom in exoplanet detection: a recent study, published in Science on 29 October 2010, predicts Earth-like planet orbiting up to 1 in 4 sun-like stars. (7) The nearest star with an exoplanet (an uninhabitable gas giant) is Epsilon Eridani, over 10 light-years away.
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‘Inauguration Exhibition of the Fourth Guangzhou Triennial’ ‘Modified Spaces’ - CCP Meta-Question - Back To The Museum Per Se
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Inauguration Exhibition of the 4th Guangzhou Triennial
Meta-Question Back To The Museum Per Se By Dr. Luo Yiping, director Guangdong Museum of Art Philosophers have long raised questions about “the basics” so-called, such as “essence and phenomenon,” “the exception and the rule,” “existing and deriving,” “form and material,” “langue et parole,” and so on. Even now these themes continue to be elaborated and explored. Taking the Guangdong Museum of Art’s imminent expansion as a point of departure, the Inauguration Exhibition of the Fourth Guangzhou Triennial will turn the museum itself into one such “basic issue”. With “demolition” and “construction” serving as the key words, we will be pursuing the many “basic questions” of the cultural logic behind its transformation from the traditional to the contemporary. Chinese contemporary art is “derived” from extremely unusual historical circumstances, both international and domestic, under unprecedented cultural phenomena that are both multidimensional and fragmentary. If some philosophical language insists upon logical expression, then contemporary art, by contrast, emphasizes the critical construction of reality and the practice-based research into the nature of art. Contemporary art thereby reveals the struggles between culture and power; while at the same time it distills and manifests the spiritual fruits and vis-
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ual creations that are happening now and pointing us towards the future. As an official item in the Guangdong Province Outline of the Plan to Build Culture and Strengthen the Province (2011-2020), the reconstruction and expansion of the Guangdong Museum of Art is expected to be completed in 2013. Following the progress of this project from beginning to end, the Triennial will occur in three phases, comprising an Inauguration Exhibition, Projects Exhibition, and Theme Exhibition. The purpose is to manifest materially the various social and cultural issues evoked by the Triennale’s site. Amongst these are responses to the many paradoxes brought to both human society and the natural environment by the rational civilization of the post-Enlightenment West, as well as reflections on the transformations of thought and values in China for the last hundred years since the Revolution of 1911. It is worth noting that the “derivation” of art is a negotiation between many forces of the times; and this is especially true for contemporary art. As Henri Bergson wrote: “The boundaries between things and their environments cannot be very obvious. Things in the uni-
verse are intimately related. The constancy of action and reaction is not enough to prove that between things there does not exist the precise boundaries that we force upon them.” Therefore, based upon the Museum’s ostensibly simple undertaking of “demolition” and “construction”, we have grounds for the organization of one exhibition related to visual thoughts occurring successively, one after the other; with one in-depth and persistent intellectual interrogation arising after another. We will reflect upon the artistic expressions that have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen, as well as the relationships they maintain to the latest trends in history, philosophy, society, culture, tradition, contemporaneity, religion, technology, nature, ecology and many others within the global discourse of Modernity. Since “demolition” and “construction” already hint at the historical progress of cultural deconstruction and reconstruction, we must urgently begin within the Museum itself to search for the spiritual essence of contemporary culture and the origin of its creative energy; that is, to search for the heterogeneous time-spaces of discursive concepts and their ever-fading boundaries.
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A hall is bathing in the deep, red and warm light of numerous heat lamps mounted on the ceiling. This is not the gate of hell, but a porch to life. It is a Fallopian tube, a start for transformation. Through this installation, the visitors enter the world of 37.6 degrees Celsius/99.7 degrees Fahrenheit. This is exactly the temperature needed for an egg in a three-dimensional incubator to hatch. The prerequisite to grow from pre-hatching embryo to newborn chick. While the visitor is pushed forward through the all dominating redness, waiting to be metamorphosised, a wall video is showing an egg that is about to break and release a new life form. At the end of the hall the visitor is drawn into a large room. An instructional video is explaining the crossbreeding Cosmopolitan Chicken Project of artist Koen Vanmechelen and prepares the visitor for the experience to come. On one side a large bird cage is looming, filled with tropical
plants and the almost mythical Red Junglefowl, the ancestor of the domestic chicken. To access this cage, to enjoy a multisensorial experience and walk the narrow line dividing the wild and the domestic, visitors must be disinfected: they are obliged to wear plastic shoes and a mouth mask. In the pre-human world of the Red Junglefowl, no human contamination or germs are allowed. Once in the cage the visitor/intruder will undergo a subtle but pervasive process of transformation. He will switch his point of view, from looking through the prism of reality to looking and sensing through a prism of changed perception. At the same time, by simply walking through the cage, the visitor restarts the process of domestication of the chicken that started so many thousands of years ago. A close encounter of the third kind. This cuts both ways, because also the human animal was transformed by millennia of
close contact with this beautiful bird. Both species needed this transformation in order to survive. In the rest of the room ventilators are ‘working’ above 15 tables, which are presented as beds. Each and every one of them is nurturing a certain amount of chicken eggs and symbolises one of the 15 generations of chickens belonging to the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. An index on the wall clarifies the crossbreeding process and the species responsible for each generation. This is the artist’s biocultural potential for transformation. These are the tools for the future. ‘Nature,’ writes Nietzsche does not by any means strive to imitate man.’ Koen Vanmechelen disagrees: man, being a part of nature, imitates and is imitated. He transforms to be transformed. To presume otherwise is foolish.
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Rebellion in the Henhouse Thoughts on Koen Vanmechelen’s artistic and culture-theoretical context By Peter Noever For the duration of Guangzhou’s 4th Triennial, the exceptional Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen has transformed the distinguished museum in Guangzhou into a vital center of chicken breeding at which his 15th generation of “Cosmopolitan Chickens” is currently mating before the eyes of the art public. By way of generating a contrast to the usual purebred, nationally specific chicken breeds, Vanmechelen intentionally crosses hens and roosters of differing origins and nationalities. The chicks of the generations that follow are thus “bastards” in a post-colonial and creative sense. “I just killed a pig and a goat!” Facebook inventor Marc Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook wall recently, elaborating his media coup with the following lapidary declaration: from now on, Zuckerberg continued “the only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself.” It was quite happily and in one and the same house that Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel had human beings and pigs spend 100 days cohabiting during documenta X in Kassel. It was via an emergency court injunction, on the other hand, that an artist once tried to block her colleague’s exhibition of a (stuffed) giraffe. The offending project was conceptual artist Peter Friedl’s Zoo Story at documenta XII, for which Friedl had transported the giraffe in question from the Palestinian West Bank to the seemingly peaceful city of Kassel. At this year’s Art Basel fair, David Zink Yi presented the lifeless body of a giant squid (architeuthis) placed in a pitch-black puddle: a fleshy manifestation of human guilt washed up from the deepest depths of the conscience, one might surmise. For her part, Swiss artist Beatrice Stähli mounted dead German shepherds and arranged them in a three-part installation entitled Die Wiener Sängerknaben [Vienna Boys’ Choir] in 1995. And finally, a bronze statue of Hachiko—a famous dog of the Akita Inu breed which died in 1923—stands as a monument to unwavering loyalty and is one of Tokyo’s most popular rendezvous spots for lovers (and now features in a movie by Lasse Halström with Richard Gere: Hachiko – a dog’s story).
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All of these artists view themselves as advocates, defenders, comrades, opponents or slaughterers, and are at any rate conscious of their power and powerlessness vis-à-vis these creatures which are different from—yet related to—themselves. In this, the artists stand metaphorically for the role of the human being—situated between animal and creator, victim and perpetrator. Simply put, these artists are dealing with issues of human existence. In his presentation, Koen Vanmechelen focuses on the mystical red junglefowl, which is assumed to be the mother-hen of all domesticated chickens. Thousands of eggs have been laid and then stamped with initials respectively designating the fifteen already-born generations of Cosmopolitan Chicken or “mechelse chicken,” with every single one representing a certain generation. The artist is using his project as a way to explore issues of subjective and global identity that have arisen as a consequence of genetic diversity, matters which naturally apply less to chickens than to human beings—and such matters are, in turn, matters of art. Koen Vanmechelen brings the issue of breeding closer to a broad human consciousness. He does not hand it over to competent experts such as geneticists, chicken breeders or market researchers, but rather claims for the topic of the chicken an approach that is artistic, intuitive and perceptive. By transferring chicken breeding to the context of art and cultural theory, Vanmechelen opens the problem to sociopolitical and philosophical questions. As absurd and funny, ironic and zany as his project may seem to be, the strategy behind it is just as unique and consistent. And this strategy makes all the clearer the determined tendency towards rebellion against traditional classifications shared by more and more artists who oscillate between art and architecture or between art and science. In this sense, the rebellion here spreads beyond the walls of the henhouse and takes aim at the traditional definition of art itself, which such transgressions simultaneously question and expand.
Vienna, 8 August 2011
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Editorial : .......................................................................................................................................................................... 4-5 Nato a Venezia: Open University of Diversity, The 54th International Art Exhibition of Venice..........................................................6-15 Born in Venice ................................................................................................................................................................................. 9 The most serene chicken .................................................................................................................................................................. 12 ‘Domestication is part of our process of growth’.......................................................................................................... 18-19 The delicate umbilical cord between nature and culture............................................................................................ 20-21 Cry for help from the Eighth Continent....................................................................................................................... 22-23 Weddings and beheadings............................................................................................................................................. 24-25 Koen Vanmechelen: art and science............................................................................................................................. 26-27 The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project: 15 generations of cross-breeds......................................................................... 28-45 A Poem As Lovely As A Tree........................................................................................................................................ 46-47 Walking in the footsteps of hunters and gatherers........................................................................................................ 48-49 Against science as a miracle machine............................................................................................................................50-51 The murder of the creative brain...................................................................................................................................52-53 ‘Directed panspermia’: spreading life through the Universe, or killing it?................................................................. 54-55 ‘Inauguration Exhibition of the Fourth Guangzhou Triennial’: ‘Modified Spaces’ - CCP, Meta-Question - Back To The Museum Per Se ............................................................... 56-65 Meta-Question - Back To The Museum Per Se .......................................................................................................................... 58 Modified Spaces................................................................................................................................................................. 60-61 Rebellion in the Henhouse.......................................................................................................................................................... 62
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Special thanks to the CC®P Foundation: Adriano Berengo, Kurt Decaluwe, Alfredo De Gregorio, Hilde en Rudi Koch, Geert Verbeke, Luc Vrielinck who made this publication possible.
Published by Publisher: Koen Vanmechelen Managing editor: Grete Bollen Chief editor & Senior writer: Peter Dupont Contributing writers: Frank Jacobs, Rik Pinxten, Ruland Kolen, Adriano Berengo, Peter Noever, Hanif Kureishi Advisory board: Joris Bollen, Carien Neven, dr. Luc Vrielinck Photography: Rudi Van Beek (p. 5) Elio e Stefano Ciol (p. 6) Nadia Taiga (p. 13) Maryse Leysen (p. 19) Koen Vanmechelen Stoffel Hias Graphic design: Frank Dalemans Translation: LJ Website: www.koenvanmechelen.com www.theaccident.be www.cosmogolem.com
Cover and back: ©Koen Vanmechelen Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, Mechelse Fayoumi 15th generation, ‘Nato a Venezia’, 54th Biennial of Venice (IT), 2011 Page 1 ©Koen Vanmechelen ‘Mechelse Fayoumi’ Modified Spaces – C.C.P., 4th triennial of Guangzhou (CN), 2011 Nato a Venezia – Open University of Diversity, 54th Biennial of Venice (IT), 2011 Page 6 - 15 © Koen Vanmechelen Nato a Venezia, Open University of Diversity, The 54th International Art Exhibition of Venice, Italy, 2011 Page 16 © Koen Vanmechelen Breaking the cage - CCP ikob, Museum für Zeitgenössische Kunst Eupen (BE), 2011 Page 24 © Koen Vanmechelen Cosmopolitan Chicken Project In-Vetro MediaRuimte Brussel (BE), 2011 Page 27 © Koen Vanmechelen Cosmopolitan Chicken Project Pedigree Page 28, 45 © Koen Vanmechelen Egg Cord - CCP Millesgarden Museum Stockholm, Sweden, 2011 courtesy; Venice Projects Page 30 –43 © Koen Vanmechelen Cosmopolitan Chicken Project Pedigree Museum Valkhof, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 2008 courtesy; Deweer collection Page 56 - 65 © Koen Vanmechelen Modified Spaces - CCP The 4th Triennial of Guangzhou, Guangdong Museum of Art China, 2011 Page 66 © Koen Vanmechelen Cosmopolitan Chicken Project Connections Conner Contemporary Art Washington (US), 2009 St. Lucas Gallery, Brussel (BE), 2009
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright.
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