Diálogo entre Mark Dion y Miwon Know

En el marco de la exposición Arte joven en Nueva York (1991)


Miwon Kwon: Why don't we talk about the evolution of this project in relation to your broader interest in nature and the environmental crisis.


Mark Dion: I'm a diversity freak (laughter). Diversity not just in natural systems but in cultural systems, which is why I like to live in New York City. I think an important question to ask is why are people from North America so involved in issues of tropical rainforests, particularly at this moment in time? Well, if biological diversity is the topic you're particularly interested in, especially in the context of today's extinction crisis, then you really have to be talking about the tropical rainforest which makes up only 6% of the earth's land mass but holds more than half of all the plant and animal species on the planet. We are also losing the largest number of species the most quickly in this region. It is an extraordinarily threatened ecosystem.


But I don't think it's easy for people from the so-called First World to talk about these issues without paying attention to history and the complex network of relations around issues of development and the unequal distribution of resources and wealth. In a way, I think that artists can function in this debate with particular importance because we can produce more complicated discussions of these issues than is available in the popular media. Although the popular media and the press discuss issues about the rainforest quite a bit, it's usually in a way that continues the same codes and misconceptions which have colored our perception of the tropical rainforest. Those codes are directly related to ecological problems we are experiencing in tropical rainforests.


MK: Do you mean visual codes?


MD: I mean visual and ideological codes that are founded in western art, literature and science. The tropical rainforest ecosystem is often seen either as a lost paradise (paradise before the fall) or a green hell, or a site of vast hidden wealth, or an incomprehensible treasure trove of diversity These kinds of Romantic ideas, the most prevalent being notions of fertile paradise or the jungle as the progenitor of evil, are all western visions that inform-contemporary reporting and decision making about the fate of the rainforest.


MK: So you're delving into systems of representation, visual or otherwise, about nature in general?


MD: Yeah. In order for nature to be considered, it has to be represented. An artist interested in issues of ecology can't approach them in the same way that a grass roots politician might or a scientist who can bring a particular kind of expertise. As an artist my expertise is the field of representation, and it's very clear to me from sampling the discourse around tropical deforestation issues that there's a lot of work to be done in that area. It is particularly important for conservation organizations and the scientific community because they tend not to be very good in dealing with complicated issues of the politics of representation.


MK: For the Venezuela project, you seem to be interested in a specific form of representation, the natural history museum and its taxonomic system.


MD: Right. The system of taxonomy was really necessitated by the museum, which is an extension of curiosity cabinets and natural collections of the 16th and 17th centuries. Within this practice, it is necessary to have a complex system of classification and description of natural objects, in terms of science. More than any other natural science, taxonomy is collection based. And this is where it relates to colonialism. It's important to make a distinction between the naturalists, the natural philosophers of the 19th century whose task was much more about discovery, classification, and categorization, and colonial agents: conquerers, merchants, clergy, explorers and pirates representing state interests.


MK: Do you equate possession with the act of naming and classifying?


MD: Of course, the production of knowledge through this process of naming has a basis in exploration. The explorer and the naturalist make sense of the dangerous and mysterious world around them through the process of naming, destroys some of the otherness and the exotic-ness. By putting everything into an international, supposedly objective schema, through this task (which is Adam's task) of naming the animals, naming the plants, and naming geography, man compensates for his inability to understand the natural world. The naturalist and the explorer make sense out of chaotic otherness by containing it in an established framework.


MK: Why do you make a distinction between the colonist and the naturalist?


MD: I don't necessarily always make a distinction but I think it's a little too easy to collapse the naturalist into the colonial project of conquest and I think that while there may be certain ideological similarities, there are very significant differences in terms of the goals of their projects. The naturalist is clearly a colonialist in terms of realm of ideas rather than a conquerer interested in material wealth, physical domination, or genocide. The goal of the naturalist is the production of knowledge through the pursuit of observations and collections of natural phenomena.


MK: That was a question I had from reading your proposal. Your project, which entails you being dropped off in a very remote area in the Venezuelan jungle involves you spending time there to collect specimens and sending them to the gallery to be presented as your artwork. You are stepping into the naturalist/colonial explorer's shoes, which is a very problematic position.


MD: Right. Obviously this is the game that this project plays. How close can you approach that character and not become that character? It's a very tricky strategic situation. For me the key element of not becoming that character is in not providing an organizational framework for my collection activities. Part of the goal of this project is not necessarily to learn anything from the tropical forest but rather to learn something about the schemes of representation that we use to understand the tropical rainforest, taxonomy being one of them. So instead of compartmentalizing and labeling all of the objects, they will be put together into a crate in the jungle, in an undifferentiated way, similar to the indiscriminate kinds of collections that were prevalent before taxonomy and before collection trips were run by specialized contemporary museums of natural history teams. This method goes much further back to New World discoveries and I see my project very much in the context of the 500th year celebration of Columbus and the beginning of the conquest.


Playing with the fascination surrounding the personality of the naturalist is another extremely interesting element of the project. The naturalist in the 19th century embodies a whole bunch of dichotomies, intentions and relations that aren't really found in other characters. For example, this character obviously has a kind of machismo, but the machismo is about orchids and collecting butterflies. He is involved with science and classification but at a psychotic and obsessive level. The person who is at the forefront of colonial exploration and is at the same time the first to argue for conservation. The character who is logical, rational and systematic also does not have the common sense and completely disregards personal safety and comfort. Nabokov has this story called Terra Incognita which is about a naturalist who is so obsessed with collecting; he puts himself in extremely dangerous situations and is unable to avoid his own death. So all of these kinds of oppositions are present in this character. This tension doesn't necessarily exist in any of the real persons like Alexander von Humboldt or Alfred Wallace or Henry Walter Bates. But this character exists in the popular cultural fabric. My generation grew up with television nature and adventure shows in the late 60s and early 70s.


MK: Like Wild Kingdom


MD: Yes, Wild Kingdom and Disney's anthropomorphic nature programs, but also Tarzan and Indiana Jones. Things like this very much informs who this naturalist character is and what his endeavor is about in terms of popular understanding. What these people are doing in the jungle or why it is good is never explained because it is entirely about entertainment. It is related to a macho fantasy. Under the guise of science it is assumed to be educational because it is in some way documentary. So just what are these Yankees doing in the Amazon? The entertainment industry does nothing to explain the importance of fieldwork in the study of biology but unfortunately neither does the scientific community. It always looks like people fighting with animals.


MK: So would it be accurate to say that in taking up this position of a somewhat fictional and somewhat real character of the naturalist/explorer, that you expect to critique both the figure and the traditions of taxonomic classification?


MD: I think it is at least a double-pronged technique. The tactical element of what I do in terms of a strategy in art production is to use fictional characters to discuss "real" material situations and documentary practice. When I wanted to talk about biological technologies as I did in a previous project recently I used the fictional characters of Victor Frankenstein and Clark Kent to ask some very concrete questions.


MK: Is that a conscious strategy to engage the audience in a more immediate way than something that might be much more academic?


MD: I think it's partly that. In the North American consciousness, there is a breakdown of what realism means, because realism is almost a set of conventional techniques. For the North American mind, Sadam Hussein is as real as Bart Simpson, for example. Using fictional characters is a way to discuss concrete material and political situations while emphasizing elements of representation, problematizing the questions, how does one tell the "truth"? This is why the Museum of Natural History is an important topic. It is how a society represents the "facts” about what gets to count as nature of a particular time for a particular group of people.


MK: So what are the constitutive elements in this project?


MD: Each week during the run of the exhibition I will send a crate of specimens which I will collect while in the rainforest. They will be returned to the gallery and will be displayed in the order that the objects are removed from the crates. There will be no system or order to their display other than that process, so it should be fairly arbitrary. It's about a certain denial. If you go to a natural history museum and want to find out about the rainforest, you have to first go to the plant section and then to the entomology section for the insects, and then to the vertebrate department for the animals. You see each group one at a time. I think my project will point to the arbitrariness and the incompleteness of that system as well as to the arbitrariness and incompleteness of the project itself. You can't see an accurate representation of the tropical rainforest because there's no such thing as an accurate representation of the tropical rainforest. This piece means to engage elements of the spectacular museum display. I certainly don't think that anyone in museums believe they're providing a total and authoritative picture of an ecosystem, but I think this discourse operates on assumptions of informed, accurate simulations which reveal objective truths.


MK: Museums are one of the legitimatizing institutions that have the authority to educate an audience about nature and art using somewhat invisible tactics, tactics that are taken for granted.


MD: My project is much more an attempt to make those procedures visible. It's not an attempt to make a better system of representation, but to make manifest that it is a system of representation.


MK: What do you think about museums and zoos attempting to be more comprehensive in their presentation by creating diorama type of displays that read as "where they used to live"?


MD: That's been a development of this century, especially in the North American museums. It marks a shift in the organizational principle of the museum away from a taxonomic classification (pigeon-holing animals into appropriate places in the chain of animals) and toward seeing animals more in the context of the eco-systems which produced them. This shift reflects the changes in the natural sciences' interest in classification to a study of evolution. In addition to the influence of ecosystem biology and behavioral studies, the development of diorama displays is also influenced by North American culture's fascination with spectacles and film. The institution of the museum could never admit this. Science has particular constraints in organizing information that we don't necessarily have as artists. They are unable to use what are bread and butter for artists--metaphor, irony, humor, self-reflexivity. All of these things are the techniques for investigating social history.


MK: You mentioned that each week when a crate containing specimens from the jungle arrives at a gallery, an identical box will also be sent to Stockholm. Can you talk about that project?


MD: Sending them to Stockholm for a show in October is a reference to the fact that Sweden was the home of Carolus Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century botanist and father of modern systems of classification. He popularized the binomial system of nomenclature to describe the thousands of specimens brought to Europe from the New World, Africa and other colonies. His book Systema Naturae was indispensible to explorers and naturalists (like Cook) who took it with them on expeditions to help describe all the new species they encountered. While my project in Caracas will reflect more significantly issues of colonialism from the New World perspective, in Stockholm the perspective will be different and questions regarding taxonomy may be more relevant.


MK: I have some questions about the current "greening" of art and people's sometimes cynical reaction. It is seen by some people as just a trend.


MD: Well, it is absolutely essential to be on the guard for opportunism and nip it in the bud as much as possible. But I think the representation of nature has always been a fundamental subject in art.


MK: Landscape painting, for example.


MD: Yes. Certainly the very first art is representations of nature. I think that the situation now is that the very category of nature as we know it is going through so many drastic changes. The theory of evolution was a major paradigm shift in the way we considered nature. Since then nature has gone from being something we had to be protected from, to something we have to protect. This is another major paradigmatic shift. We're now going through yet another shift; that brought on through biological technologies and genetic engineering. We're now producers rather than simply consumers. And of course this will drastically affect the way we think about life, nature and ourselves. The fact that a great number of artists are interested in this topic is not a surprise to me because I find this to be one of the most significant topics in social thought. I'm less cynical. If you look at the variety of approaches that people are taking to this topic, I think that many are really interesting and helpful. I consider myself more a political artist than a "green" artist. And for me, the most complicated political problem today is the ecological problem. I'm extremely concerned with the issue of extinction. Extinction changes the rules of what taxonomy does. It's no longer an enumeration of what exists in the world but what is disappearing.


There is obviously a correlation between the colonialist's endeavor to name the animals as they are discovered (Linnaeus project) and the conservationist's endeavor to name the animals as they disappear (the endangered species list). Most of our ecological problems can be traced directly back to colonial interference. As I said before, my work may not be grassroots conservation but it is very much allied with political and ecological movements. I think it can be helpful to them.

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