A conversation between Chanelle Adams and Luiza Prado
Chanelle Adams, Camphor Avenue: A Garden of Ghosts, ICA Live Art Festival 2022. Photo by Xolani Tulumani. Courtesy Institute for Creative Arts and the artist.
Greetings Art Workers!
This year I made the decision not to fly for the duration of the Sunlight Project. I had been influenced by Ellie Harrison’s immense art experiment, The Glasgow Effect, which saw the artist and activist pledge to “not travel beyond Glasgow’s city limits, or use any vehicles” except her bike, for a whole calendar year.” I mention it here because there is a story in our interview this month that recalls a successful artist suggesting that one “solution” to climate change is not to fly first class. This comment is so jarring that it almost feels like it was intended as a joke. Unsettlingly as it is, it was indeed a serious suggestion. Since hearing it I have been reflecting on what we mean when we say an individual’s choice when it comes to climate action (something that will be addressed in a future newsletter interview). My personal decision not to fly was (and still is) driven by the thought that Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline initiates a situation that invites others to think about what is meant by a transition to a low-carbon economy. Will transition be a redistribution to achieve greater social equality? And if so, what are the terms that this is happening on in the arts and how do we feel about it?
Thinking about how my travel is entangled in a network of other mobility relations—social, cultural and geographical—is something Harrison discusses meticulously in her book. My decision has expectedly reduced my travel. I live in Edinburgh, so travelling by land and sea to mainland Europe (or further afield) for art events is prohibitively expensive, takes a substantial amount of time, and highlights the elite extravagance that micro-travel really is. Additionally, in my experience, most arts organisations choose to allocate small budgets for an artist’s travel, enough to cover a cheap flight and a night in a hotel, highlighting the priorities of those who steer arts organisations and, in some cases, their limited funds. Choosing not to fly has also (more complicatedly) thrown up a million questions about absence and refusal, personal self-sacrifice and operating in a system of self-interest, as well as the role community plays in my life and work. As Art Historian Joan Kee asks on this illuminating podcast, how do we go about redistribution without feeling that something is lost?
Rethinking absence and revising practice is at the heart of June’s newsletter.
Below we have a preview of a CONVERSATION by Brazilian artist and activist LUIZA PRADO DE O. MARTINS and writer, historian, researcher and artist, CHANELLE ADAMS. Departing from questions about the lifecycle and duration of a work of art, Prado invites Adams into a discussion about her work exploring how colonialism created institutions and the lasting impact this has had. In solidarity both practices explore the liberatory histories of plants, seeking to address and unpack ideas of preservation, (bio)power, control and colonialism. In this invigorating interview Prado and Adams’ cover a range of conversation topics that explore the depoliticisation of climate change and the concept of “hauntology'' in museum and institutional contexts. They discuss how artefacts held by colonial institutions “haunt” contemporary museological practice and scholarship, examine the sacred values of absence and silence, and offer a framework for interacting with the presences that remain in the museum through Adams’ notion of the “right to rest”.
The conversation is part of Prado’s Anti-Offsetting Primer, a co-created resource and decolonial investigation exploring alternative ways of doing art. The Primer touches upon various themes such as the climate emergency and restitution, ecocide and displacement, and the anticapitalist poetics of home. It will be published online in the autumn as one part of the Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline decarbonisation plan. You can read the stellar INTERVIEW BELOW.
As always, if you are interested in getting involved or would like to have a conversation about Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch at email@example.com.
Until next time,
Haunt: A conversation between Chanelle Adams + Luiza Prado de O. Martins
Luiza Prado: Wonderful, and we start here. I think it could be useful if I started to tell you a little bit about my work and why I was interested in co-creating the Anti-Offsetting Primer. Dani [Admiss] invited me to co-write the primer and what I found interesting about this project and why I wanted to participate was because, initially, my artistic research was looking into our relationships with plants. In my PhD, I studied birth control and its relationship with structures of power, particularly in Latin America and Brazil, where I'm from. I was looking into technologies of birth control, like the Pill and the IUD, looking at all these histories of violence tied to colonial power and the control over the bodies of racialised peoples. For years that was a lot to be honest but it gave me a little bit of hope in looking at how people related to plants. It also allowed me to look back into my own family history. You know how certain things that are said or that are part of the everyday and when you look at them again you're like oh, now I get why there was this thing about having like cinnamon tea if your menstruation was late, especially in a country like Brazil where abortion is still illegal. Looking at that relationship with plants allowed me to have some sort of hope and to be able to see not only the extremely violent aspects of these technologies, which are more or less present in our everyday lives, but how there are communities of care and a possibility of something else. When you start looking at plants in the world that we live in, and, especially since I'm interested in questions around population and so on, you get to think about the climate crisis. It's impossible to separate one conversation from the other.
Around 2019, I started looking a little bit more into the racist concept of overpopulation. My understanding of reproduction broadened somewhat from looking exclusively at biological processes of reproduction into thinking about how that related to food distribution, to healthcare, access to education, to housing, to all those things. My practice has also been very focused on food, because I realised that a lot of the plants I was studying for birth control were also foods. I've been doing performance dinners as a way of exploring community and the importance of communities of colour here in Berlin. When Dani invited me to look into this area, I was really interested first of all because as an artist I've always operated with so little resources here in Europe. You're just making art and making do with whatever was available. When I came to Berlin, I was very shocked at how much big institutions here use in terms of resources in terms of materials and all those things, so it was really important to start looking at that. I was also interested in a deeper political conversation, which I think is also an issue in the art world. The conversation around the climate crisis is depoliticised. It focuses on conversations about taking planes and flights and it kind of ends there. Just last Friday I saw a conversation like that at a panel discussion I was on. An artist recommended that we all travel economy class when we fly and I was like, wow, thank you for the revelation.
I think it's such an interesting conversation, particularly when we try to reject the carbon offsetting narrative of just planting some trees somewhere and whatever you are doing is fine. One of the main methods of the primer is a series of interviews with art workers all over the globe and because of your work about plants, colonial hauntologies and restitution, I thought it would be interesting to hear a little bit more about your thoughts on these questions that I sent to you.
Chanelle Adams: Firstly, I want to say thank you for inviting me into this conversation. Like you said, this whole constellation is totally connected and oftentimes siloed, whether it's how health is separate from land or somehow the body from history, which to me is so telling. You have to do a lot of work to pull those pieces apart. The climate crisis and eugenics are really born of the same drivers and over history have been pulled apart, so I'm really encouraged to see the whole framing of the Primer bringing all of these pieces back together to have the whole conversation which people so strategically avoid – like with that comment about taking first class flights.
LP: I guess in the Primer I explore how these different things come together. Ideas of who can be born, for whom health is for and how people have access to land, which, like you said, are connected, or for whom those human rights and more than human rights are guaranteed or not. I wanted to start by asking you, how do you see colonial hauntologies manifested in the structures and the goals of arts institutions?
CA: I see haunting and ghosts everywhere, especially now that I live in Europe. It's so present for me in the sense that I understand ghosts and haunt to be when there's many aspects that are still unfaced. I don't think that all ghosts and all haunt are detrimental and scary. I have a belief that you can be friends with ghosts, but the certain kinds of ghosts that I noticed are present in institutions are the ones that are really seeking to have conversations and that are continuously being ignored. In my capacity as a researcher, I have spent time in colonial archives in France. These have mostly been natural history archives, although natural history and art have this sort of slick crossover –for example, in Marseille there's a big palace where one side is the natural history museum and one side is the Beaux-Arts collection, so historically there has been crossover between these kinds of institutions. In these natural history collections, particularly with taxidermy animals, you can see the way that life is prohibited to die and how this denial of the natural cycle of life is maintained by technologies of preservation. For example, in a natural history archive you might see a giraffe from Egypt in France, and this giraffe has been restructured multiple times in its afterlife to look more alive. Oh, the head needs to be turned to look more lively. Oh, the skin needs to be enhanced. To me that sort of obsessive practice indicates a certain relationship towards death. I think museums, and probably art institutions as well, who may be spending a lot of money and resources to keep things as they were, have this relationship towards death to not let things die. When you don't let things die there's a lot of ghosts and hauntings that happen because the whole point is to be trapped in this liminal space. What you can see on the walls of the museum has a certain kind of afterlife that it's living but certainly in reserves and warehouses in basements and off site there's a whole un-afterlife that's happening for these materials that are just being denied the right to rest.
LP: I think the background work of museums is fascinating. I remember being asked to visit the economic botany collection at the Kew Gardens in London. It was such a strange experience. It is supposed to be a natural history collection but because the team knew I’m from Brazil when I arrived there they had prepared to show me these artefacts from an indigenous group from the Amazon basin. It's a group that does not does not exist anymore. It was interesting how apologetic they were. They were saying we've been trying to think about restitution a lot and we got in touch with a group that is related to the group the artefacts belonged to and we asked them if they wanted this back but they didn't. The thing is that in a lot of indigenous Amazonian cultures when someone dies you burn all of their things, you don't keep anything—you let that go—so obviously the people don't want that back. And they said the best that they could do was bring some people from one of the analogous indigenous groups over to do a ritual with the objects and that was it, the objects stayed in the collection. Those artefacts belong to an entire group of people that does not exist anymore because of colonisation, first from European powers and then from the colonisation of the Brazilian state, which is a settler colonial nation. Kew also took me behind-the-scenes of the collection to see the specimens that they have and they had stuff like a massive round of a sequoia tree. I was so shaken by having seen the artefacts from that group that by the point that we were walking around the collection I was just crying. It was embarrassing. I couldn't quite handle the emotional impact of what I was seeing. It was very striking that they didn't quite know what to do with those emotions. It was a really interesting moment to see the reactions of embarrassment or trying to justify something. I have so many questions about that institution. I guess you've probably come across similar experiences way more than I have?
CA: First of all, that is so intense. To me that is a really irresponsible exercise where it's almost exhibitionist in a way for an institution to do that but not have any sort of practice or ethic around care opening up these kinds of inquiries. It's almost as if the act of exposing that there's some historical wrong is enough. To me the acknowledgement of what it is, what we know to be true is baseline. Fundamentally I've come to understand restitution, and many of the issues that come up around restitution, to largely be around incongruous conceptions of - and relationships to - death and grieving. Where there are some actions on behalf of institutions that are just not appropriate. Like the example that you've given. That is not appropriate for the people to whom care or restitution is supposed to be happening. I mean it's quite insidious and intentional too in some ways. I feel like growing up every movie had some sort of museum mummy sequence, which is very violent and every so often I see a headline about some sort of CT scan that has finally been done over a mummy or that a sarcophagus has been opened up. It's on display and it's made banal. It's this certain kind of relationship towards death, which has not really—in what I've seen—been reckoned with in terms of the popular discussions around restitution and re-relating in this present so-called postcolonial context.It's like alright then, what is your ethic, what is your belief, where is your respect for death and the cycle of life. Many places in the world have really concrete practices around what happens when somebody dies and, I think even given the present pandemic watching certain countries and institutions not face the reality of massive death and massive grief existing in society, we can see this in the institutions as well. It's not that separate. An example from research that I've come across is the way that during the colonisation of Madagascar, where there are many rituals and practices around death that are tied to the land and where bones need to return to homelands if they don't, is very fraught. During colonialism bones were intentionally stolen and they're still in storage in institutions in Europe. These bones have never been returned to the land and to the natural cycle of things and it has been really disruptive to many generations of people, because if ancestor bones do not return to the tomb on a specific land, it can disrupt an entire social fabric and disturb the living. The way that bones, human remains, plants, animals, statues and artworks are treated by these institutions has this overarching politic around death that to me seems largely unresolved and it's quite disturbing and unnamed.
LP: It reminds me a lot of what feminist writer and independent scholar, Sara Ahmed calls “the politics of admission”. The idea that the institution admits that there is a problem and that is enough. The admission becomes the solution of the issue, so it stops there and there is no further step in actually addressing the problem. I've been working with all these issues around decoloniality for a few years. When I first moved to Europe it felt very much like swimming against the current. I needed to force my way into conversations and spaces and be assertive to try to get people to listen. I remember there was a moment, that in the space of the year, the same European people that had told me openly and quite shamelessly that thinking about decoloniality was making drama, it was too much and it was unnecessary, the next year they were giving talks about decolonisation. In that moment there was a shift towards conversations around decolonisation. I welcome it but at the same time I'm concerned.
CA: Here's an example of how expertise and knowledge becomes centralised. Rather than something coming from those who are most engaged for a longer period of time, most affected, most knowledgeable and experienced in this subject becoming an institution, an institution that already has a founding ideology is trying to gain expertise and validate itself through engaging with people in a piecemeal way to validate or give itself authority. This is something that's not new. In my research about the botanical specimens of Madagascar I detail the way that when France collected organic specimens and brought them to the laboratory they both relied upon the value of being Malagasy plant medicine, but then write over it by giving it a scientific Latin name and then claim the knowledge for its own patriotic institution. These are the mechanics of centralised knowledge. It has a colonial history and it is present in many large scale institutions.
LP: It becomes consolidated in all these ways. The first plant that got me into looking at reproductive plant medicine was a plant called the peacock flower. I first got curious about it because I came across a document written by a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Depending on different accounts, she was one of or the first women to go to the Americas as a scientist and an artist instead of a wife, for instance. What piqued my interest about her story was that she described the use of this plant for abortions amongst indigenous and African peoples in the Americas. It was very clear. She wrote in her account that she had been told that by these people, people who remain nameless. The story of the peacock flower then becomes connected to her name because her account was one of the most well known accounts about this particular use of this plant. There's only like three accounts of the peacock flower. It is her and two more men who wrote about this plant and this particular use. I think a lot of my work around this plant has been triggered by wanting to think about the people that remain nameless in this. The people whose knowledge was extracted in this way. Going back to our conversation around death and haunting, perhaps part of our work as artists and thinkers around issues of decolonisation is also, I believe, spiritual work. It's work that tends to a very old wounds. It tends to these relationships and knowledges that have been raised or under recognised or not recognised at all.
Doing that spiritual work means working with death and afterlife and that makes me think about what is the meaning of making artwork about this? In the practice of an artist who's trying to do this, what does it mean to to engage with death and afterlife in this way? How do we think about the death of our own artworks? What does that mean?
CA: You are opening up so much. Part of what I really love about what you're saying is this practice of holding a presence of that which maybe we don't have a document or proof of but holding space for the presence of an absence. Where, for example, somebody who is looking to have an authoritative stance towards knowledge may see something that's unnamed as an opportunity to put your own name on it. An alternative to this way of doing could be to hold that absence as a presence in itself and respect and revere that placeholder. That there is somebody who did author or did hold or share this knowledge and that to fill in that space is actually not just disrespectful but trespassing on something that's really sacred and that it requires a certain kind of faith to hold that space for what what has been lost, for who has been lost, for the places that have been lost, the knowledge that has been lost. Not lost in the sense that it doesn't live in the present. There's many practices and beliefs that exist, and some of which I hold, where not knowing can be knowing, too. Even in this context where things are supposed to be very clear and documented, there's many ways to become familiar with this not-knowing. Faith, belief, and ritual can expand our capacity for living openly within this space of knowing and not-knowing. It requires a certain kind of comfort with what can't be explained or with who we know that we don’t have proof that we know.
I guess, when it comes to holding that space, I'm thinking about it in my own artistic practice creating or facilitating experiences around holding that space or maybe opening that space for those who don't habitually hold that space. I recently gave a ghost tour in the Kirstenbosch botanical garden in Cape Town, South Africa. The ghost tour was around this road that has a bunch of camphor trees that were planted by Cecil John Rhodes (1853—1902), who served as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, 125 years ago. These trees are witnesses to history. They've been around for longer than we have. They've been tended to by people whose names aren't documented anywhere, but these trees are still alive and vibrant and without holding space for what we don't know about these trees or what these trees know that we haven't stopped to take in. It was a facilitated experience around actually witnessing and being witnessed by these trees that people pass by on a regular basis. I mean you go to the beautiful garden and have a picnic, look at the protea, but these trees, which are a very prominent presence, also speak to many absences. Much is possible if we shift our lens to noticing an absence as a presence – and this requires rehearsal, it requires faith, it requires many things that we're definitely not taught in school.
LP: That's a really beautiful way of observing that and also engaging with those living beings. How many trees are there?
CA: There's maybe over 30. A few of them also had some kind of fungus and so some of their limbs have been amputated and they couldn't live any longer. The amputation also coincided with important moments in South Africa's political histories, so these trees have been really going through it but stand there as if they're just ornamental.
LP: That is amazing. I would love to have attended. It sounds like an amazing experience.
CA: This also speaks to your question about what do we do with the lifespan of art? This was an experience that you know there's some residues that have been produced from it, which I understand as maybe portals of access, so maybe if somebody wasn't actually present there they might read something and go take the walk for themselves and access something from it in their own way, but that allowing moments to just be a moment is okay too. To record my voice and do a guided tour that people could do on their own is different work and there's something about requiring presence in a moment and then allowing it to pass, which I think is really not necessarily the impulse in institutions which want something repeatable, scalable, preservable, documentable.
LP: Thank you so much for your thoughts and for your reflections on this. I was really excited about this interview because I really love your work and I've been eager to hear a little bit more about what you are doing and to see you and engage more with your ideas, so thank you so much for this.
CA: Thank you, this was a lot of fun to be in dialogue with you. Keep me posted on the Primer.
Chanelle Adams is a researcher, translator, essayist, and artist currently based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her doctoral research in geography approaches questions of land, history, and healing in relationship to camphor trees in Madagascar and beyond. Chanelle was awarded a Fulbright grant for her M.A. research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales on French colonial herbariums and natural history museums, and also holds a B.A. in Science and Technology Studies from Brown University, USA. Her site-specific ghost tours and "information ceremonies'' have taken place in Vancouver, Marseille, and Cape Town. She frequently contributes translations to Paris-based architecture magazine The Funambulist and her own writing can be found in The Drift, NPR, Danspace, as well as in various zines and small press editions. She’s online at chanelleadams.info and @nellienooks.
Dr. Luiza Prado de O. Martins is an artist, writer, and researcher whose work examines themes around fertility, reproduction, coloniality, gender, and race. She is part of the curatorial board of transmediale 2021 and an assistant professor and vice-director of the Centre for Other Worlds at the Lusófona University in Lisbon. She is a founding member of Decolonising Design. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Academia. She is currently based in Berlin.