Issue 1/2015 - Kritische Netzpraxis

Art and Political Ecology

Toward the New World

Brian Holmes

Seen from a crop duster, a field on the frontier of South America's “Soy Republic” is just a mottled splotch of green. There's a road somewhere along the edge, maybe a river or a forest on the other side; but the field is huge, and we're not high enough to see those edges. Instead the pilot takes a bead on a young boy holding a red flag and pulls the spray release. A cloud of vaporized herbicide descends on the GMO crops and on the boy himself, breathing hard because he's already running to the next position. The pilot throttles down the spray at the end of the field, wheels around in the sky and repeats the job for another swathe of mottled green. These are country farmers imitating space-age technologies.
Cut to the real thing: an agricultural production site operated by a multinational on vast plots of recently deforested land leased by an investment group known as a “planter's pool” (pool de siembra). This time our plane is equipped with a GPS device and a computer-controlled spray rig that calculates the quantity of herbicide for both airspeed and wind direction. Constellations of orbiting satellites supply positioning information down to an error margin of only centimeters. There's an LED readout on the windshield, directly in the pilot's line of sight. That readout becomes the landscape. It changes color when we hit the proper altitude and directional coordinates. A simple line of disappearing dots ticks off the countdown until the button is pushed.
Now we're spewing out a devastating stream of herbicide, fungicide or even paraquat onto the genetically modified plants. The water table, the surrounding forest, the aquifers and the entire Paraná river basin are permeated with these chemical substances. Minute yet ultimately lethal traces of the poison suffuse the millions of gallons of soy oil that are exported annually to China. Meanwhile, superweeds are sprouting in the fields below, and the corporate board rooms anxiously await the arrival of Dow Chemical's new strain of GMO soybean, which is resistant both to Monsanto's Roundup and Dow's own weed-killer 2,4-D, formerly used by the US military in the infamous Agent Orange. Still the record profits of 2009-10 are pushing investors to further expansions of the soy frontier.
What's happening? Who do we work for? Whose laws do we follow? What country is this? Which planet do we live on? Too many questions. The plane is wheeling around in the sky. The GPS signals are pulsing. The boy with the red flag is running. The cloud of toxic vapor is already glistening on the lush green leaves. It's a hot sunny day in the place that used to be called Argentina.

Nomos of the Earth
Since the early 1990s, the art and activist group Ala Plástica has been working to sustain the habitats and life-ways of the Paraná River watershed against the expansion of the transnational economy. They began with attempts to revitalize the repressed and impoverished public space of the university town of La Plata, south of Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata estuary. Rapidly they were driven by ecological curiosity and economic necessity to explore the craft of traditional reed-cutters along the banks of the great river mouth, and they planted bulrushes in the brackish water, observing the rhizomatic propagation of the plants and emulating it in human terms. Already in 1998 they began confronting IIRSA – the Project for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America – when key actors of this industrial development consortium planned an immense bridge crossing the estuary to Uruguay. Had it been completed, the bridge would have caused incalculable environmental damage. Local residents pushed back, and the project never happened. Next came the Shell oil spill, which at the time was the largest such catastrophe in a fresh-water environment. Ala Plástica joined social movements to respond to the disaster, and to pursue the oil giant in an international court of law. Successfully, as it turned out.
Following the paths of solidarity and struggle, the two-person group has expanded its own activities to include a multitude of partners, exploring the labyrinthine channels of the Paraná River Delta and the traditions of the islanders who live there, then moving upstream into the river basin and gradually forging contacts across borders. Today Ala Plástica has an important role in the Alliance for the Wetlands System of the Paraguay-Paraná River – a vast bioregion extending across Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. In the course of this work, which includes European and North American collaborations, the group has redefined art as a catalyzing element within a contextual process of human and environmental metamorphosis. As they write: “In the long run, we hope a series of artistic, sensory, political, economic, and social relations and connections will follow one another, thereby generating the emergence of transformative actions or of actions that influence power.” They have gained widespread international recognition for these efforts, for instance in the exhibition Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy, at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2014. Today, however, this activity faces new obstacles in the form of the soy boom and its consequences.
Around the world – and particularly in Latin America's Southern Cone – financial investment has come to bear on farming, resulting in a form of expropriation known as “land-grabbing.” Foreign ownership now totals 10% of the agro-industrial land in Argentina, and around 25% in Paraguay and Uruguay. Yet these percentages mask the even greater effects of planters' pools, whereby the relatively small holdings of the traditional oligarchies are leased out to mega-farms deploying the so-called “technological package.” Genetically modified seeds are purchased from transnational suppliers, then injected directly into unplowed ground with the technique of no-till sowing. Fields packed densely with soy, corn or cotton are doused with agrotoxins to beat down weeds and boost growth – a process that requires little human labor, but lots of big machines. Aerial spraying is just one component of the technological package.
High yields and the ability to quickly bring new fields into production through mechanized deforestation fuels the development of a new extractive industry, sucking water, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and calcium out of the soil. Traditional farmers and indigenous populations are forced off the land, with displacements of some 200,000 people in Argentina since the outset of the boom in the mid-1990s. The crops themselves – or derivative products such as soy meal and oil – are exported to Asia, yielding tremendous profit for corporate suppliers and capital investors. In recent years the adverse health effects of the fumigations have sparked a major social movement in Argentina, forcing a halt to the planned installation of a new Monsanto seed plant. Meanwhile, rumblings are being heard in China about the health consequences of GMO consumption, particularly because of the traces of Roundup that remain in the beans and the oil. Yet the windfall profits of the soy boom are what pulled Argentina back from the brink of collapse in 2001, financing the social programs of successive leftist governments. The democratic republic of the cities has been forced to coexist with the transnational “Soy Republic” of the countryside, whose new sovereignty in large areas of Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil was proclaimed in a scandalous advertisement by the Syngenta corporation in 2003.
All this may sound distant to readers in Europe or North America. But the expansion of the soy frontier exemplifies contemporary geopolitics. It may not really be your airplane up in the sky, but the dynamics down below govern everyone's world. To interpret them we'll need to return to a tainted source. In the early 1950s the former Nazi and arch-conservative historian of international law, Carl Schmitt, defined the basic characteristics of historical periods in terms of “land-appropriation.” By that he referred to the lines inscribed both cartographically and concretely on earth – the treaty divides, borders, property lines, fences and enclosures of any given era – plus the systems of measurement, principles of order and practices of orientation associated with those terrestrial boundaries. Can we define the form of land-appropriation that is at work today? When did it emerge? What distinguishes it from colonialism? And how is it likely to evolve under the pressures of economic and ecological crisis?
For Schmitt, the old European order took form in the sixteenth century with the representation of the earth as a globe, rationally gridded with cartographers' meridians. It was based on the contrast between the firm borders of states on dry land and the wide-open spaces of the high seas. The Old World was the realm of international law, and the New World, that of plunder. This dual order was conceived by the Europeans as a contrast between the civilized and the savage, the human and the non-human. It simultaneously encouraged both the Enlightenment respect for individual rights and the brutal extraction of resources from the colonies. Such a contradictory territorial order, or nomos, lasted from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the late nineteenth century. It was the age when Europe proclaimed itself the center of civilized culture and the “sun never set” on Britain's overseas empire.
All that changed in the early twentieth century, with the advent of air power. The stark division of bordered land and open sea – and with it, the distinction between the Old World and the New – began fading into insignificance. To be sure, national boundaries were still respected in theory, whether in the heartlands or on the peripheries. But intervention by the hegemonic powers – and increasingly, by the United States – could take place anywhere, anytime, especially from the air. Humanitarian principles were no longer confined to home territories, and by the same token, brutal force could no longer be exclusively directed outside, to the colonies. The old Westphalian order dissolved in the horrors of the World Wars, opening up the possibility of a new and disorienting “nomos of the earth.”
The Soy Republic exemplifies the contemporary model of land appropriation. Corporate acquisitions of vast territories, whether for agriculture, mining, transport infrastructure or urbanization, are now common interventions, taking place irrespectively of national borders. Measurement is done with satellite technologies, pushing air power beyond the stratosphere. Order is imposed through cosmopolitan law, as codified by transnational institutions like the WTO. Finally, orientation is achieved according to the north star of financial profitability. In all these activities, the primary agent of intervention is no longer the nation-state. Instead, the agents are banks, investment funds, corporations or high net-worth individuals, as well as more complex actors such as utility districts, municipal authorities, quasi-non governmental organizations, private-public partnerships, transnational business consortia and humanitarian military coalitions. These agencies, each with its technological package, are able to transform the face of the earth – and dramatically raise its temperature.
Under a liberal free-trade regime, the regulatory functions of the hegemonic power are to smooth out monetary flows, maintain military order and uphold international business law. Yet the declining ability of the United States to fulfill these functions leads to the kind of disordered, all-terrain interventionism we now see unfolding across the planet, in the wake of 1989 and especially since the 2008 meltdown. In both economic and military terms, it's no exaggeration to speak of a geopolitics of chaos. What appears on the horizon is not only the end of the neoliberal era, but a possible breakup of the US empire itself – that is, of the “Liberal Leviathan” which, for seventy years, has bound individual states into a functional hierarchy. The question is, how to respond to this chaos? Where to seek new measures, new principles? What fundamental orientations might now emerge for life on earth?

Mobile Assemblage
Just before Ala Plástica began its rhizomatic spread through the territory in the early 1990s, the tactical media group Critical Art Ensemble had started building its own interventionist toolkit in the USA. It was based on a remarkably consistent body of critical knowledge about a social order they called “pancapitalism.” Inspired by the hacker ethos – to which they've significantly contributed – CAE developed piercing insights into the operational routines of liberal empire. From 1997 onward they applied those insights to the fields of bioscience and biotechnology, via books, performances and public experiments. The results offered vital clues about how to respond to networked globalization. But this was a complex technical critique with a strong anarchist bent. The casual observer probably saw no relation between CAE and Ala Plástica. Even I was surprised to get a very generous email from CAE in late 2013, asking if I wouldn't like to come along and visit some of their good friends in Argentina?
Of course the answer could only be yes. For me it was a crisscross of elective affinities. We would be collaborating with La Dársena, a counter-hegemonic “platform for thinking and artistic interaction” in Buenos Aires, run by old friends Eduardo Molinari and Azul Blaseotto. Our visit to the city of Rosario we would be organized by Graciela Carnevale, with whom Claire Pentecost and I had done a project in 2011. Two other mainstays of the journey were unknown to me – Joan Vila-Puig, a Barcelona artist working with autonomous culture, and Fabiano Kueva, an Ecuadorian videomaker and ace of pirate radio – but their styles of engagement were on a perfect wavelength. We were joined by the American artist Sarah Lewison, one of my co-members in the Compass Group, with whom I had just collaborated in Chicago on what we now realized was Ala Plástica's central issue: bioregionalism, which is fundamentally about the ways that water inscribes lines on the earth. The idea of the trip was to constitute an expressive assemblage in continuous motion across the Paraná River bioregion, in order to share knowledge and experience with dozens of Argentine partners while getting an introduction to the continental-scale watershed, or cuenca. The title that Ala Plástica proposed was a piece of major blasphemy for the quick-and-dirty tactical media generation: “CUENCAS LAB: Watersheds as Laboratories of Governance.” So what exactly was going to be governed – and how were we supposed to do it?
That question was left floating as we launched the two-week program. We were moving from the urbanized region of the Rio de la Plata estuary to the labyrinthine world of the Paraná Delta with its endless channels and islands, then finally to the grain-exporting river port of Rosario, whose western hinterland is an enormous wetlands. Everywhere we met participants in territorial social movements: rural squatters on an island next to a brand-new container port; municipal teams working to clean up the Riachuelo River; Delta islanders whose traditional lives seemed to be drowning in weekend tourism; urban gardeners from giant favelas; labor advocates struggling for environmental justice; members of the STOP FUMIGATING US campaign; organic farmers with the world's cutest piglets; wetlands dwellers whose children go to floating schools; educational activists literally navigating between isolated river communities. During a powerful moment in the Delta, at Punta Querandí, we encountered a group mobilized around an indigenous peoples' struggle for the preservation of sacred land in the face of wholesale privatization by immense gated communities. In Rosario we had an unforgettable lunch with a natural-born ecologist and guitar-playing cook, Guado García, at the cliff-side shack left to him by an old fisherman whose front porch looks out on a continually moving riverscape traversed by waterfowl, precarious barks and giant ocean-going grain ships.
For those who like to meet people, this was a rewarding experience. Wherever he had the chance, Fabiano was heating up the pirate radio, launching intense conversations among small, tight-knit groups. It took me a while to realize that “the project,” as such, would never materialize. Instead of a project, we were entering a dialogical system of inhabitation, where each particular sphere of activity was like a pool in a wetlands, draining into some further marsh, rivulet, stream, channel, river, estuary or ocean. Our role as foreigners was simply to meet a rhizome of resistant initiatives, all struggling to go beyond just surviving and invent ways of actually living. But our role was also to give back, whenever possible, our different versions of what resistance can mean in the twenty-first century. For CAE, this was blue-sky research: the point was encountering the unknown.
It soon became obvious how much common understanding links the Argentine artist-activists to North Americans who went through the tactical media turn. Sarah Lewison's engagement with the bioregional ideas of Peter Berg in the 1960s-70s encountered new futures through Ala Plástica's rhizomatic moves up the Paraná River. My own concept of “eventwork” was founded on Graciela Carnevale's experience of the Tucumán Arde project in 1968, which opened up many possibilities for research-driven art in a complex society. And CAE's projects on genetic engineering and GMO consumption were the perfect complement to Molinari's recent investigations in B.O.G.S.A.T. – La Responsibilidad, which assembled a collective to examine the multiple dimensions of the agro-economy, including the key event of Paraguay's recent coup in favor of the soy barons. None of us were instinctively afraid of scientific theories or digital technology or satellite mapping systems, and none of us ignored the consequences of their capitalist exploitation. We do share the same world.
In Buenos Aires we chanced on an exhibition called “Urgent Action,” at the Proa Foundation (“That's all funded by Techint, the guys who make the oil pipelines,” Molinari reminded us later on). On white-cube display, a decade after the facts, was a rogue's gallery of interventionist art from the Latin American streets. Lava la Bandera (2000): the satirical Peruvian invitation to “wash the flag” on the public square after militarist soiling by the the Fujimori regime. Architecture of Exclusion by Frente 3 de Fevereiro in Brazil (2007): a work of tactical television denouncing the absent representation of blacks through mass actions in a sporting arena. Grupo Etcetera's Operation B.A.N.G. (2005): an errorist invasion of a transnational summit, with hilarious paper guns on a peaceful seashore. Serial Crime by Grupo Escombros (1995): 700 trees marked with white crosses to fend off meaningless destruction. These and other gestures, some more recent, showed off the full Latin American range of artistic interventionism, with all its virulence and political bite. Fantastic stuff, which all would have fit into the tactical media paradigm of the Next Five Minutes festivals. But we knew this was history in a box. What's missing are the urgencies of the present.

Climate Change
How to govern our world? It was the question that the tactical media practitioners of of the 1990s so wisely refused to answer. Government was and still is the big lie, the “plan on the planet,” as Félix Guattari once put it. We opened channels, hacked systems and disrupted summit meetings because the injustice was obvious, and our job was to make it explicit. In 1999 on the eve of the Seattle WTO protests, all the issues that matter today were as clear as daylight – to a tiny minority. Don't hate the media, be the media, was the slogan. Across the world in a thousand ways, the members of a political generation set out to be the messenger. After all, corporate investment was busy laying the cables.
Fast forward to the present. There's a smartphone under every Christmas tree and after inexcusable delays, we finally got the message. The next generation is going to cook, and in the meantime, take this for a diversion: economic collapse, political chaos, famines, pandemics, water wars, superstorms. Such realities are a bit heavy for those who just wanted an art career. Too bad that in end times, capitalism has closed the special department for the beautiful soul.
Chicago, where I live, is the city that makes it impossible to imagine a bioregion. This is a condition of forced ignorance shared by the majority, including those who wake up in that endless Borgesian metropolis, Buenos Aires. We are no better for what we can't conceive. The most impressive part of the experience I am trying to describe is conveyed in the title chosen by Ala Plástica: “Watersheds as Laboratories of Governance.” The implication was organized meshworks like the Alliance for the Wetlands System of the Paraguay-Paraná River could, at the price of an endless commitment, start laying the groundwork for a different relation to the planet – a new “nomos of the earth.”
Schmitt fascinates intellectuals on both left and right, because he grasped the contradictions of the old European order in concrete spatial terms, then charted the process of its dissolution. He had seen the bombs come down and knew very well how a world could be governed from the air. But he couldn't foresee any resolution to the future crisis of the new world order, because his political engagements of the 1930s – decisionism, Großraum, Führerprinzip – were radically worthless. Today, under the pressures of climate change, no less a mainstream figure than Bruno Latour has begun reworking Schmitt's concept of the nomos, in an attempt to name the actors, the instruments, the measurements and the principles that describe the territory on which climate scientists could stand their ground and resist. In the most striking proposal I've encountered since Hardt and Negri's Empire, Latour attempts to compose the people of “the Earthbound” in the face of what he calls “a secular Gaia.”
For Latour, what's urgent is an ethics of perception: by attending to the feedback loops of our actions on the atmosphere, “we become more sensitive and more responsive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit.” This is done, not through the denial of scientific instruments, but instead through their use, engaging the “vast machine” of climate modeling. Yet Latour also insists that art has a fundamental role. In the case of Ala Plástica, an activity of responsive perception is extended person by person and environment by environment, to reach transnational dimensions. Where Schmitt's Großraum or “grand area” proved as empty as the formless universalism it was supposed to oppose (just like the European Union has done), the bioregional experience makes planetary processes tangible on a continental scale.
After CAE's lecture at Di Tella University in Buenos Aires, a local blogger wrote that this was “Greenpeace art,” arriving in Latin America with pre-cut solutions to tell everyone what to do. To me, it seemed curiously the opposite. In the place that used to be called Argentina, we were being introduced to a geopolitics where what mattered most was not dry land and open sea, nor even satellites and infinite space, but instead, water tracing its vast slow circumvolutions on the territory. And we were invited, as Latour suggests, not to appropriate the earth, but to let ourselves be appropriated by it. Art can be a pathway to this experience, which offers a fundamental orientation for the struggles of a political ecology to come. I couldn't yet imagine it when stepping off the plane, but I already do live in this new world.



1 For the most complete treatment of Ala Plástica, see the Spanish-language catalogue available on the Internet:
2 See
3 Jennifer Flores Sternad, “Interview with Ala Plástica” (July 2007), at
4 Perhaps the best single article on this subject is “The United Republic of Soybeans: Take Two,” published by the web-journal Grain (July 2013), at Also see See Mi Zhen-yu, “We Must Face the Harm Caused by Imported GM Soybeans to 1.3 Billion Chinese People,” available on the website Sustainable Pulse, at For an artistic critique of Argentina's soy boom, see Eduardo Molinari / Walking Archives, The Soy Children (New York: Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 2012) which includes an intricate reflection on the national symbolism of the “flag boys.”
5 See Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth (New York: Telos Press, 2003/1st German edition 1950).
6 The phrase is from John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan (Princeton University Press, 2011). Unlike Ikenberry, I think the US has acted as a self-contradictory liberal empire since WWII, and not only during the Bush era.
7 For the most complete access to the work of Critical Art Ensemble, see
8 See
9 See
10 See
11 See for example the recordings from Punta Lara, at
12 For an introduction to bioregionalism and a map of the Chicago-area watershed by Sarah Lewison, see Also see her text on the trip: “Thinking with a River,” at
13 See Brian Holmes, “Eventwork: The Fourfold Matrix of Contemporary Social Movements,” in: Nato Thompson, ed., Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011 (MIT Press, 2012) and at
14 See CAE, Molecular Invasion (New York: Autonomedia, 2002) and Eduardo Molinari / Archivo Caminante, B.O.G.S.A.T. – La Responsibilidad (Bergen: Bergen Assembly, 2013). B.O.G.S.A.T. includes contributions by Azúl Blaseotto, Ana Bróccoli, Hernán Cardinale and Alejandro Meitin, and is available, with English translations, at
15 See
16 See the latest predictions by the US military, at
17 For links to the pdf and the videos of Bruno Latour's Gifford Lectures, “Facing Gaia,” see and
18 See Victor López Zumelzu, "Un arte Greenpeace" (August 7, 2014), at