Review of the 12th Conference of the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of the 12th Conference of the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts

12th Conference of the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts
GREEN. Jens Hauser (Chair) & Louise Whiteley & Adam Bencard (Co-chairs)

June 13-16, 2018 – University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, DK
Conference website:  http://green-slsa2018.ku.dk.

Reviewed by
Giovanna L. Costantini
August 2018

The 2018 Conference of the European Society for Literature, Science and the Arts convened in Copenhagen 13-16 June on the theme of GREEN, a cross-disciplinary optic through which to explore questions of political, social and environmental sustainability. Concurrent streams of over 180 papers, keynote presentations, panels, workshops, screenings and exhibitions probed GREEN’s intersections within fields ranging from philosophy, art and literature to the political, social, natural, technological and physical sciences.  To emphasize the rationale and scope of the conference, Conference Chair Jens Hauser branded the color green “more concept than color,” often reduced to mere metaphor stripped of material, epistemological and historical referents. “This confusion,” he argues, “increasingly obstructs an interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the natural sciences—a dialogue which is urgently required considering anthropogenic effects on climate and biodiversity.”

An emphasis on conceptual, process-driven paradigms of trans-disciplinary social ecology stimulated debates surrounding relations between the biosphere and techno-sphere, earth and planetary systems; post-humanism and de-growth theory; anthropogenic transformation and problems related to economic and industrial development, population displacement, sustenance and other consequences of supply and demand economics and capitalist expansion. Within these areas, presenters challenged time-honored epistemologies, theoretical models, critical methods, established canons and lexicons.  Contentious socio-political issues included climate change, the depletion of natural resources, wildlife preservation, pollution, biodiversity, feminism, indigenous cultures and post-colonial identity.  At the same time artists and philosophers, natural and social scientists combined to address relationships, systems and policies conducive to ecological stability and humanistic endeavor. 

A “Planthroposcene,” proposed by Natasha Meyers, Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University, Toronto as an unbounded episteme of photosynthetic regeneration, offered one of many ecological foci for germinating growth.  Others included University of Copenhagen Professor Birger Lindberg Møller’s research in plant biochemistry and medicinal compounds pertinent to the formation of new, potentially curative molecular structures; the artistic research of Agnes Meyer-Brandis into migratory tree cultures drawn from climate and environmental studies, meteorology and synthetic biology; Oana Khintirian and Sha Xin Wei’s time-lapse photography of plant movements suggestive of a dance of attraction and abandonment; Line Marie Thorsen’s critical study of Japanese artist Watanabe Koichi’s Itadori, a work based on a prized perennial known as an invasive species; Karine Bonneval’s experimental films evocative of tree respiration; and an assessment of Copenhagen’s “Urban Forest” project, a plan to introduce thousands of trees to the inner city over the coming decade as an ecological paradigm. 

Copenhagen’s Medical Museion, a combined museum and research unit of the University of Copenhagen, featured impressive displays of scientific inquiry.  Austrian artist Thomas Fuerstein’s installation “Metabolic Machines” explores the transformation of living matter into technologically altered biological sculptures. With Adam Bencard, Associate Professor in Medical Humanities at the Novo Nordisk Foundation for Basic Metabolic Research, attendees toured “Mind the Gut,” a permanent exhibition of complex interactions between neural networks and microbiota that probes correlations between the digestive and nervous systems.  Staged in the Amphitheatre of the Royal Academy of Surgeons of 1787, Margarete Jahrmann and neuro-scientist Stefan Glasauer performed a speculative flow-model of the brain as an optical flow of particles transmitted in the manner of vascular diffusion.  Other conference sessions included pioneering research on human reproduction, plant and human biology and micro-biology, botany, geology, endocrinology, immunology, mortality and extinction, gene therapy, radioactivity and applied kinesiology.

The Statens Museum for Kunst, the National Gallery of Denmark, hosted a spectrum of creative performances, art and sound installations, concerts, dances, and talks by Danish contemporary artists on the theme of green.  In a presentation entitled “Green Shadows” accompanied by an illuminated sculpture by Hubert Schmidleitner, Olaf L. Müller, Professor of Philosophical Science at Humboldt University, Berlin challenged Goethe, Ritter and Ørsted’s identification of green photons predicated on the principle of polarity by demonstrating the contemporaneous projection of purple light, green’s counterpart, indicative of complementary inversion.  The Museum Garden staged electronic jam sessions, interactive choreographies and tastings of cocktails mixed from plant and flower extracts.  Parallel conference streams explored a panoply of art-related subjects:  color theory, color science, and color perception; languages of color and color homophones; multicultural historicities of green from ancient through post-war eras; curation, collecting, conservation and museology subjects, including matters associated with eco-art; landscape painting and art materials.  Presenters scrutinized Matthew Barney’s “Drawing Restraint 9,” Frank Gehry’s MPK20 Facebook complex, Aarhus’ Memorial Park and New York’s Riverfront Park Soundwalk as models of visionary and/or dystopian design.  Related to the visual arts were also interpretive encounters with pastoral and romantic literature, futurist ectopias and feminine gardens, Middlesex, Martha Graham and Nathanial Hawthorne. 

Gareth Doherty, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Senior Research Associate at Harvard Graduate School of Design, described his fieldwork in Bahrain in a semi-plenary address that offered another model of vanguard disciplinarity coupled with innovative methodology. Through ongoing, direct interpersonal encounters with native citizens, his research in landscape architecture integrates urbanistic studies, social and political science, ethnography, cultural anthropology and language.  His investigation of semiotic codings of green within Bahrainian society aims to orient landscape design in Bahrain within its broader context of indigenous religious, political and economic interests and traditions. 

In league with these cross-disciplinary tendencies Brigitte Luis Guillermo Baptiste’s riveting presentation, “Queering Ecology in ‘Trans’ Colombia” probed relationships between reproductive species and the environment that derive from socio-political constructs in which “queerness” epitomizes the ecological complexity of being.  “The cultural interpretation of biological facts is complicated,” Baptiste asserts.  “Genes, organisms, species, biological communities and ecosystems are complex entities built by human societies over the last centuries, but most often without acknowledging the previous millions of years of evolution. In that process we have created the idea of nature as something external, stable, as a gem only waiting for us to become a jewel.”  Baptiste, General Director of Colombia’s Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, a national facility for biodiversity research, labels biodiversity the “green stuff from which all other conditions arise.” Addressing the politicization of the biosphere, Baptiste stressed the urgency and complexity of socio-ecological challenges faced today, challenges that include contested levels of development, mining, fracking, hydropower dams, industrial agriculture, wilderness management, mixed ecosystems and deforestation.  Impacted by disparate cultural identities, politicized racial and gender identification, private investments, labor syndication and other forces, Baptiste advocates for transitions towards sustainable change in Colombia, for ideas that respect its cultural diversity and social evolution while seeking to protect the fragile interplay of ecological, developmental and political interests that form the institutional interface between science and socio-environmental policy.  “We must confront complexity,” Baptiste resolutely declared to an attentive audience, to sustain our evolving capacity for habitable life. 

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Keynote, “Coat of Many Colors” also sought to permeate interstitial barriers that hamper exploration.  Tsing, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, recipient of numerous awards, is best known for her most recent book The Mushroom at the End of the World:  On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2017, Princeton University Press).  For Tsing green is a variegated concept, one that extends across continents and cultures, disciplines and perspectives as multifarious as the tonalities of trees.  In a worldview that vastly encompasses social groups divided by difference and inequality, she warns that the ecological consequences of imperial and industrial infrastructures threaten to destroy the privilege of living in a green world, a world whose tonal nuances may be conveyed in Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors” as they are through many Indonesian myths and parables.  She points to toxic fungi that threaten the survival of the human race in the fantasy worlds of Myosaki and death by plastic seen tragically in a cinematic trailer for “Albatross” by Chris Jordan which depicts the painful death of seagulls from ingestion of plastic debris.  To counter such pernicious conditions, she advocates mutualism and transformation inspired by nature: the ash of Norse mythology, a tree of life, which grows in hostile places or the integrated relationship of birds to trees to seed dispersal and the semination of fruits.  She urges, in their likeness, an ethics of care whereby humanity strives to emulate the birds and the trees in ways that express the life-affirming ethos of a conference dedicated to color, an awareness she experienced among biologists investigating the survival strategies of fungal cultures.  Thrilled to find yellow’s brilliant chroma at the core of a barren rock crevice, she marveled with wonderment at the “sheer heterogeneous exuberance of the chemical expression of the natural world.”  Her comments echoed the exhilarating spirit of discovery that imbued the SLSAeu’s conference on GREEN with stunning reach and global import for the future of venturesome research.