The Conflict Within
I´ve been increasingly starting to feel, especially in recent years that the issue of ecological destruction, whether it will be climate chaos, whether it be the disappearance of species, whether it be the water crisis … Every dimension of the ecological crisis is in fact the leftover ruins of a war against the Earth, the biggest war taking place on the Planet which globalization has made truly global. No place is safe, no ecosystem is safe, and no communities are safe.
Dr. Vandana Shiva1
The Conflict Within
I would say the only thing that differentiates artists from other people is their access to an audience, albeit a rather small one. Politicians, actors, singers, and religious leaders have much more exposure than a visual artist. Nonetheless, artists are commentators for the different interests that we humans have. This platform on which we occasionally stand can be used to present all kinds of themes and interests; the artist’s sensibility, experience, and context are some of the elements that help to shape the contents of his or her work. Art needs freedom of content, form, and expression.
The role of an artist in a conflict zone is the same as the role of any human in a conflict zone: that of following his sensibility, of opening his eyes and understanding his own position, and that of doing what one holds as right.
As an artist and a person I like to talk from and about my own experience.
The conflict zone has always been within me. Much of my self-doubt took shape and color from the outset of my art studies: I wondered, like many other people, who am I and what is expected from me? As a result, my work questioned heterosexual sexuality, gender issues, male and female cultural constructions and stereotypes, and which habits of our social behavior reinforces women’s inequality in our society.
These themes were like a snowball growing and growing and including more issues like women’s rights, LGTB rights, the feminization of poverty, economic abuse in the name of so -called Progress, inequality, and environmental issues. The more I investigated I saw there was a tremendous interconnection between economic-environmental-community rights and women’s rights.
At one point I started to work with seeds. Seeds are, for me, the materialization of generosity. A tree doesn’t give a small number of seeds: it gives and gives and gives, ensuring the continuity of life, its own species and those who are dependent on it. When I make installations with rice, corn, and beans I think of the first women that collected seeds, cleaned them, and set them aside for the next day. In every culture, food is the gift you provide for your group, family, and strangers. Food is nurture itself.
When I first heard about genetic modified food, I could barely believe this was happening: huge companies patenting life as if they had created it, forbidding ancestral practices like choosing and keeping the best seeds for the next season. Contaminating other fields with their poison-resilient seeds and accusing farmers of “stealing” their patented seeds. Multinational companies have attacked the most vulnerable populations in many countries: indigenous people and farmers, not to mention destroying biodiversity (insects, animals, and other plants), and polluting water and the soil. All of this it has been happening since the early Nineties, and we still don’t know what we are eating: (there are no GMO-labeled products).
I talk to people about this problem and some of them know about it, some of them do not, some really don’t understand what the problem is in the first place. Besides the environmental impacts named above, GMO crops can create allergies, antibiotic resistance, and worse—some of the chemicals in fertilizers like Roundup are carcinogens.
After a while, I realized I wasn’t getting through as much as I wanted to.
I felt I was only providing information, just overwhelming people with another batch of bad news. Hard but true … and I didn`t feel any big change or evolution in my life.
What is it that makes us run from these issues, that overwhelm us and make us just want to change the channel, to hear some music and forget about it? I started to observe myself. Speaking since the age of 17 with friends and family about unjust economic conditions, communities under threat of disappearance, species going extinct, and ecological disasters, and sharing information picked up from here and there … and then simply going to bed, getting up, and continuing with my life in the exactly the same way as the day before.
Obviously there was something wrong … really wrong. I believed THEY had the responsibility of all this chaos; THEY were failing to do the right thing, and I was just an insignificant someone with no power or choice. And anyway, the conflicts were so far away … I felt powerless and somehow untouched by these other realities, disconnected.
Gulf of Mexico BP Oil Spill, 2010
The 2010 BP Oil Spill was my breaking point. As soon as I heard the news I knew this was going to hit me big time. I knew I would cry for many days and I would be frustrated. I also knew that that was exactly what BP and the oil industry wants: they want all of us to feel little, powerless, to get out of the way and let them keep “working.”
I didn’t get out of the way. I tried to understand what happened and what the relation to me was, and I realized it was Oil: I use it every day. My life overflows with plastics, which are everywhere; there are even oil derivates (such as parabens) in cosmetics. We use fuels like diesel, gasoline, and aviation fuel for transportation, oil is used to create electricity, and on and on. Because I am a consumer of this product, BP’s oil extraction was also made for my own consumption. I connected, I realized I had something to do with this disaster, and I could do something too: I had to watch my own oil consumption and try to reduce it to the absolute minimum.
I realized how all these years I was disconnected. I was all talk, no action. Suddenly I had a lot to do, a lot to change, because a harmonious life with nature would not come from doing the same old thing. The first person I had to address was myself.
I made a list of things I could easily start straight away: using cloth bags in the supermarket, turning off the computer when I am not using it, watching my water consumption in the shower, etc. I created these lists and decided to take two hours on Sundays to check how things were going.
I realized that the goals had to be constantly reviewed because you don’t always get it right. For example, I went shopping and I only took one bag, which wasn’t enough to hold my goods, so I had to get some plastic ones at the store. Another day I changed the bag I carry and I didn’t have any cloth bag with me. In the beginning, then, it takes some time to acquire the new habit and to actually adjust it to your own life.
Old habits die hard, but they certainly die!
I felt very good because I was finally doing something that was in communion with my thoughts and desires. On the other hand, you suddenly realize the immense quantities of waste that are everywhere. You get an aspirin and it comes in its plastic-plus-aluminum capsule, in its paper box, and you still get a small fitting plastic bag you can never reuse. This can be discouraging at times. But you grow, you understand this is a process that you want people to be integrated into, and you say “no thank you, I won’t take the bag” without barking at them.
I believe many of us want to hear good news from Nature: that a river is no longer polluted, that some animal species is no longer in danger, that a forest grows.
I believe we are conditioned by publicity and the lies that we achieve happiness trough consumption. We are Pavlov’s dogs and we need to wake up and start thinking for ourselves. What make us happy? What make us healthy? What is it that really matters?
We barely receive any information about what we are polluting, exterminating and poisoning. And this includes our own body. We need to inform ourselves. It is our responsibility to know what we are doing with our lives.
And we can always go deeper and deeper. And share the information, be patient with yourself and others, remember we are all learning.
HERE, (heaven, earth and hell) (2008), Beans and pebbles. 4 m diameter
Well I think it is more that the works came from that consciousness-search process I am in.
The works with seeds are probably the ones where these themes are clearer. They deal with Genetic Modified Organisms and consumption.
I started to make installations on the floor using the basic crops consumed in most of Latin America and Caribbean countries: rice, beans, and corn. I do designs that go from 9’ x 9’ to 32.8’ x 45.9’. It takes a lot of time to install these pieces: between 16 to 56 hours. I really appreciate that space because while I am working people come close; sometimes they help and tell me their food stories: what they know, how it used to be before, what had happened. Others wonder why I make so much work to wipe it out later, working for “nothing.”
I also started to use Fibonacci numbers in my art pieces. These numbers express the way plants grow. We owe our lives to plants. Plants give us oxygen, food, and medicines. Cyanobacteria “polluted” the Earth with oxygen 2.500 millions of years ago; they also protect the rivers and watersheds and are found in Plankton. Through plankton, cyanobacteria is producing around 50% of all oxygen needed on the planet.
The conversations I have had with people during and after the seeds installation works have had a great impact because I discovered that the problem was not only in Costa Rica or Central America, but that the problems were big and interrelated. People from India told me that varieties of Basmati rice were disappearing. I met a Puerto Rican that still deals with the consequences from Agent Orange (courtesy of Monsanto). I heard from New Yorkers about the existence of no grass fed cows. I heard about bees disappearing. I heard in Guatemala about red and black corn being almost extinct and the list goes and goes. All these voices, like drops of water in a stone, left a hollow.
How should we understand the intersection between your art, the environment, and the way you choose to live your life?
I am still trying to understand why our culture divorced itself from Nature. I have my “own” theories: It is easier to exploit something you don’t know or have a relation with… Nature is all about life and death and we don’t want to know anything about the second. To get closer to nature means to be closer to our bodies, accept that we are organic beings that are going to die…
My art develops of my concerns, my concerns look for a constructive outlet in the everyday life. I try to transcend my mental and artistic discourses and do actually something in the real world… We tend to float in a sea of discourses never touching ground…