When artist Beatrice Searle approached me about co-curating an exhibition and symposium responding to the rewilding movement, I was struck by the potential richness of the topic. I had only met Beatrice once, to chat about her project For the Journey and Return, which I had written about for a magazine. Since then, we have only met in person once more, but we have corresponded over email and WhatsApp most days since the idea of a rewilding exhibition was floated between us (we live over 500 miles apart in Glasgow and London). What started as a speculative email has grown into Rewind/Rewild: a labour of love which has connected us with a whole network of people and organisations who want to rewild the world and the human beings who live as part of it.
The ideas that have come together around this project have been developed collaboratively – both between the two of us, and more broadly through the influence of books, articles and conversations with artists, speakers and our hosts, OmVed Gardens. Our collaboration led us to realise that our exhibition is the result of many bodies and minds, not to mention technologies, landscapes, plants, animals and microbes: the list of credits is endless.
But a list implies linearity, hierarchy, one thing after another; putting together Rewind/Rewild was an evolution, yes, but with all the mutable branchings-out and reachings-back that are suggested by the complex network of nature around us. Horizontal gene-transfer, the microbiome, trophic cascades, the immense complexity of interconnected systems: artistic, philosophical and scientific thought is starting to shift towards a recognition of the unknowable myriad things that affect the web of life. We wanted to create a small nexus point in that wider network, a coming-together (or even becoming-together) of ecological ideas, both amongst artists and more broadly across disciplines.
Rewind/Rewild is a group exhibition about the ecological implications of rewilding and the broader possibilities for rewilding human lives. It uses the burgeoning rewilding movement as a prompt for analysing human beings’ networked role in ecosystems, and it challenges us to relinquish our destructive desire for control over the natural world, for the sake of both people and environments.
With ecosystems as our subject, we wanted to take an ecological approach to curating the exhibition. We wanted to draw on the principles of the rewilding movement, with its aims of allowing natural processes to resume and reintroducing the species that are essential to trophic cascades (animals or plants whose presence has widespread, and often unexpected, effects on restoring elements of an ecosystem at various levels).
A glasshouse is not a wild space – in many ways, it is the opposite. But it can be a gateway to wildness.
Collaboration was the first step. We then began to find that this implied a broader network of shared creativity. We have also tried to be aware of the carbon footprint of producing the exhibition, minimising it wherever possible. In addition, we are taking a ‘leave no trace’ approach to the space at OmVed Gardens; unlike many exhibition spaces, where holes made in the walls and floor are constantly filled and painted over, OmVed’s architecture of bare wood and fragile glass means this isn’t an option here. Although occasionally challenging, this requirement has made us aware of the invasive changes often made to galleries, often with no particular thought over whether these incisions are necessary or how they change the fabric of the building. We see our ‘leave no trace’ approach as an analogy for one of rewilding’s key aims: to leave an environment to itself, rescinding human interference. The analogy is not perfect, of course. A glasshouse is not a wild space – in many ways, it is the opposite. But it can be a gateway to wildness.
While the glasshouse may be the opposite of wilderness, it can also be seen as the opposite of the white cube, leaving it somewhere tantalisingly in between the two. Constructed mostly of transparent panels, the glasshouse is nothing like the traditional art viewing space described by theorists such as Brian O’Doherty. In the white cube gallery, O’Doherty argues, “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modem), there is no time.”i Windowless, white, closed off – the modern gallery aims to make the visitor feel that they are outside time, that art is outside time. Of course, much has been done to break down the apparently insuperable walls of these semi-sacred, money-filled modernist spaces, especially in the last decade or so. Nevertheless, the white cube model still persists, especially in metropolitan cultural centres.
We were drawn to OmVed not merely because, with its apexed glass roof and three-level layout, it is un-cube-like, but because it is surrounded by tall trees and because the path towards it leads through a wildflower bank and beds of scented herbs. There are fig trees growing inside it, there is an open kitchen with gold taps, and the roof sometimes leaks a bit in winter. The temperature inside is closely correlated to the temperature outside (another challenge when displaying art).
The space is perforated – it breaks down the distinction between inside and outside. Far from being closed off from the world, it is openly a part of it; the trees waving beyond the glass are a constant reminder of the real-life implications of both art and ecological issues. Rewind/Rewild evokes an ecosystem of environmentally implicated artistic making, interconnected with people, systems and species beyond the gallery space.
In her essay The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard argues that we all have a ‘second body’, an ever-present version of ourselves that is physically implicated in others on a global scale, beyond the specificities of our lived experiences. There are many (interconnected) strands to this idea: firstly, as human, bodily consumers, our choices have near-direct effects on an immeasurable plethora of other beings, from factory workers in developing countries and people made ill by power-station smog, to beached whales and poisoned lichens.
Moreover, although we like to think of the human body as individuated and discrete from others, it is in fact open and porous in a biological sense: we shed hair and skin cells wherever we go; we breathe in the discarded cells of other people and animals; and every living thing has a film of microbes on its surface, not to mention the hordes of tiny things that live in our gut. As Donna Haraway reminds us in her Companion Species Manifesto and later in her book When Species Meet, 90% of the cells in our bodies are not recognisably ‘human’. We are always implicated in the beings of others.ii
Recognising one’s body as permeable, porous or perforated is essential to rethinking the human at a time of ecological crisis.
Hildyard claims that this tendency of the body to be interpenetrated with others is unnerving for us: “There is a sense of horror which apparently comes from the fact that your body is a physical thing with porous boundaries. Nobody in the world can be completely insulated from the atmosphere; the atmosphere can be influenced by any living body. Therefore each body is involved with every other living thing on earth.”iii
She thinks this recognition of the ‘second body’, which is implicated far beyond the physical locality of our everyday lives, is brought to the fore by climate breakdown. But she argues that it is hard to recognise this other version of ourselves, or to accept that it is real – that eating sea bass is truly contributing to the mass slaughter of dolphins, to use an example shared by George Monbiot recently. However, Hildyard does suggest that there are ways to find a reality in this networked, interpenetrated and interconnected version of yourself, and taking responsibility for it; she talks about learning “that it was possible to live in an individual body, and also allow it to be permeable, without experiencing a sense of horror.” iv
If recognising one’s body as permeable, porous or perforated is essential to rethinking the human at a time of ecological crisis, then for us, the permeable exhibition space feels like an appropriate way of rethinking the tropes of the art world. In such a space, there can be an element of give-and-take at play. Visitors will bring their own assumptions and ideas, and will take others away, changed by perceptible and imperceptible moments of connection – connections which have the ability to spiral outwards and inwards at the same time. Key to rewilding is the recognition that nature is not ‘out there’, the great ‘other’, abstract – but made up of real animals with real bodies, and of real plants and real fungi helping those plants, in a collaborative network of which human beings are an integral part.
From the beginning of this project, we agreed that we wanted Rewind/Rewild to look beyond the disciplinary boundaries of visual art and to make connections more broadly. We decided to structure this cross-disciplinary exploration as a Rewilding Forum, bringing together social scientists, artists, architects and theorists, alongside ecologists and representatives of active rewilding projects and organisations.
Scheduled for Saturday 4 May, and set in OmVed’s glasshouses alongside the exhibition, the forum will be a platform for exploring the wide variety of issues and challenges rewilding needs to meet, as well as looking at wilder, networked modes of living at every scale, from invisible microbe to vast wilderness.
The potential significance of rewilding has recently been boosted by the Natural Climate Solutions initiative launched by George Monbiot and other prominent figures from across disciplines, including science, the arts and lobby groups. The aim of the programme is to promote rewilding as a carbon draw-down response to climate breakdown, highlighting the link between protecting ecosystems and protecting human beings from climate-related disasters of their own making.
However, there is a tension at the heart of the rewilding movement, and this is something we have attempted to echo in our title, Rewind/Rewild (where the / sign can suggest either similar alternatives or opposites). There is a question of how we can stop humans from interfering in nature at the same time as encouraging humans to reengage with nature. This seems, in many ways, like a contradiction in terms. As rewilders, we want landscapes to become self-willed, for ecosystems to restore their own balance without being managed by us. However, as rewilders, we also want to enjoy those landscapes and the natural wonders that autonomy can show us. We want humans to become wilder too. This can lead to a conflict of interests or priorities, which rewilding projects need to be prepared to tackle head-on.
To embrace rewilding – as to embrace Hildyard’s ‘second body’ – often involves a change of mindset: a disengagement from the dominant patrilinear, capitalist and anthropocentric modes of thought which generally govern our economic, political and social relationships. Recognising that life is a collaborative effort often means overcoming years of social conditioning. We feel that this is only made possible by moving away from familiar narratives: by working across disciplines and even across species.
In Donna Haraway’s words, we need to work on getting “beyond the Great Divide between humans and other critters to find the rich multiplicities and topologies of a heterogeneously and nonteleologically connected world.”v The world is open to us, but we need to perforate the barriers of our own making and allows ourselves to be open to the world in return.
Rewind/Rewild is at OmVed Gardens, London from 1st to 7th May 2019.
Curated by Anna Souter and Beatrice Searle. Featuring Rodrigo Arteaga, Marcus Coates, Alannah Eileen, Julia Crabtree & William Evans, Hannah Imlach, Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice, Beatrice Searle, Anna Skladmann and Amy Stephens.
Rewilding Forum, 4th May 2019, OmVed Gardens, London
Speakers include European Nature Trust & Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Dr Jonathon Prior, Dr Darren Evans, Dominick Tyler, Dr Poppy Nichol, London National Park City, PiM Studio Architects, Dr Stephen Head, Anna Skladmann, Dr Susan Baker, Fiona MacDonald : Feral Practice, Tom Jeffreys.
Book your tickets here.
All images: OmVed Gardens © Thomas Broadhead
i. Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, (1976; repr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) p.15
ii. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) p.4
iii. Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018) p.57
iv. Ibid, p.107
v. Haraway, When Species Meet, p.27