Nature of Rights: Earth Law, Forensics, Geo-Symptoms

How does rights-of-nature discourse relate to specific artistic practices? How do rights—in particular those of Earth Law—emerge within visual explorations, discursive formulations, and political activities? If nature is accorded legal subjectivity, then how does it testify or provide witness, within what forum of presentation (or forensis, the multisensory platform of truth deliberation, according to Decolonizing Architecture's recent investigations into forensics), and how does the planet’s geology exhibit symptoms that can be translated into aesthetico-legal contexts, whether that means the experimental legality of aesthetics, or the aesthetics of actual emerging Earth jurisprudence?

With Subhankar Banerjee (Artist), Ursula Biemann (Artist) & The Otolith Group (Artists)
Chaired by TJ Demos

Artist, educator and activist Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other northern Alaskan regions have captured international attention. Working at the conflicted intersection of indigenous culture, biodiverse flora and fauna, and the corporate fossil-fuel industry, Banerjee locates the landscape at the centre of antagonistic geopolitical, economic, and environmental relations. There, caribou tracks and coal seams intermix in heterogeneous stratigraphic layers of animal life and geology-become-natural-resource, all seen through Banerjee’s aerial lens as the writing of eco-industrial discord on the Earth’s northern surface. Far from popular naturalist imagery, his photography always comes with extensive researched texts that explain the context, history, and political stakes of his pictures, which are also mobilised in diverse streams of distribution, including gallery and museum presentations, internet-based activism, and social-political movements.

Swiss video art researcher Ursula Biemann is an artist long interested in the geopolitics of migration and uneven resource distribution. In her project for the Rights of Nature she joins Paulo Tavares, Brazilian forensic analyst of land use policy and the politics of indigenous resistance in the Amazon. Their work Forest Law draws from research Biemann and Tavares carried out in the oil and mining frontier along the rain forest of south-eastern Ecuador. This area near the Peruvian border is considered the sovereign land of indigenous nations (such as the Sarayaku), and has experienced waves of exploitation from various national and international actors who continue to seek access to its untapped resources, even as pools of toxic waste from past extraction projects lie untreated on the forest floor. How can legal mechanisms, particularly those that recognize the rights of Mother Earth as recently enacted in Bolivia and Ecuador, protect such areas from human destruction? In their work the forest’s nonhuman agents, Amerindian inhabitants and activists, state regulators and corporate interlopers, are positioned at the forefront of a legal revolution in relation to Earth law and the rights of Pachamama.

During their longstanding artistic and discursive collaboration, The Otolith Group have inquired into the subjects diverse as documentary-essayistic practice, sci-fi aesthetics and futurology, postcolonial visual culture, and speculative ecologies of media, aural, and material environments. Part prequel and part premonition, their video Medium Earth is an experimental notebook film unfolds from research undertaken in California, where the artists became attuned to the traces of seismic activities and their reverberations in the psychic realm of human mediums, sensitive to complex geological semiology and hermeneutics of earthquakes, able to read their own bodily sensations as predictive of seismic upheaval elsewhere. Interpreting earthquakes as a kind of Earth language, the film listens to the southwestern American deserts, translates the writing of its boulders, and deciphers the calligraphies of its expansion cracks and fractures. In this case, the rights of nature begins with the cultivation of an attentiveness to the Earth’s testimony, akin to learning a new perceptual capacity.