Decolonizing Nature: Making the World Matter


Mastery and possession: these are the master words launched by Descartes at the dawn of the scientific and technological age, when our Western reason went off to conquer the universe.[ref]Michel Serres, The Natural Contract [1990], trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 32.[/ref]

—Michel Serres

Living at a time of ecological tipping points, resource over-consumption, widespread environmental degradation, and runaway climate change — some twenty-five years after Michel Serres made the above observations — we are more than ever conscious of the disastrous effects of that scientific and technological age of post-Enlightenment Western modernity, now increasingly global in its reach. For the philosopher of science, the origin of the crisis is located in our fundamental relation to the material world around us: “We dominate and appropriate [nature]: such is the shared philosophy underlying industrial enterprise as well as so-called disinterested science, which are indistinguishable in this respect. Cartesian mastery brings science’s objective violence into line, making it a well-controlled strategy. Our fundamental relationship with objects comes down to war and property.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

If environmental matter has been treated historically as an external thing to be used, exploited, commercialized, fetishized, and colonized by humans — long recognized by many Marxist critics and indigenous peoples alike[ref]Frederic Jameson writes that “multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis, constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas. This purer capitalism of our own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way. One is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature. . .” “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review I/146, (July–August 1984), 78.[/ref] — then what we need, Serres proposes, is a “natural contract,” one that will bring about a new conceptualization of our relation to material objects and nonhuman life forms. While Serres’s prescient analysis has been taken up specifically in different works by the participants in World of Matter — including, most directly, Paulo Tavares’s research video Non-Human Rights (2012) — it also proposes a useful entry point in considering the projects of the collective as a group. For these all variously operate on the dual registers of critical documentary analysis of the present order of things, and speculative modelings of alternate possible worlds, which echoes the central terms of Serres’s writing. Bringing together ecological research, social justice activism, and environmental humanities research, their efforts could not be more relevant to our current world of global crisis.

Building critical documentary research via a diversity of videos, photographs, presentations of material evidence, and analytical and speculative texts, the work of World of Matter investigates how the current regime of resource colonialism, industrial ecocide, and the neoliberal agro-economy is socially and environmentally destructive, economically and politically unequal in the distribution of its negative effects, and historically rooted in paradigms of imperialism that go back centuries. What would it mean to decolonize nature? Colonialism, at its most basic, imposes a subject-object relation of power, defined by mastery and appropriation, to reiterate Serres’s terms. For the Martiniquan writer and thinker Aimé Césaire writing in the mid-twentieth century, the colonial relation (as between European colonizers and Afro-Caribbean colonies) involved manifold techniques of domination, including “forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.”[ref]Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism [1955], trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 42.[/ref] Writing more recently, the Johannesburg-based theorist Achille Mbembe argues that colonialism constitutes multiple forms of violence: an inaugural violence, whereby colonialism creates and defines the terms of its own existence; a second violence, where its authority asserts its exclusive power in terms of law, right, and legitimacy; and a third violence, where its control is maintained, spread, and made permanent.[ref]Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 25.[/ref] If we accept this admittedly schematic definition stretched across a half century of anti-colonial theory and practice, then to “decolonize nature” would suggest the cancellation of this subject-object relation between humans and the environment, the removal of the conditions of mastery and appropriation that determine the connection between the two, and the absolution of the multiple levels of violence that mediate the relation of human power over the world.

Considering the diverse projects of World of Matter allows for further and more precise approaches to what the process of decolonizing nature might mean, beginning with those that present us with critical analyses of the destructive industrialization and domination of nature in Brazil. Tavares’s Field: Amazonia (2012), for instance, offers a photo-essay travelogue of his recent trip across the country investigating the socio-environmental disaster zones of Brazil’s modern eco-political history, from the regime of state-supported deforestation, ranch and farm development, oil exploration, and resource colonization between the 1960s and 1980s to the subsequent wave of IMF-supported privatization and neoliberalization of the 1990s. In the wake of this development, the Amazon lies depleted and degraded, even as it submits to a continued conflict between resource grabs for global markets and social movements struggling for democratic, local, and indigenous sovereignty.[ref]See Paulo Tavares, “Field: Amazonia,” in Provisões, 72–97.[/ref] Complementing Tavares’s overview, and focusing on agribusiness in western Brazil’s Mato Grosso, Uwe H. Martin and Frauke Huber’s video LandRush: Frontier Land (2011–14) portrays large-scale commercial farms that use chemical pesticides and considers their socio-environmental impacts. Research footage presents indigenous activists explaining that such development comes “without limits” and fouls traditional farming lands with agrotoxics and transgenics, forecasting a dark future of conflict over quickly vanishing clean water supplies.[ref]See for instance Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (London: South End Press, 2002).[/ref] In further sections that compare Brazil to other geographies, they track farming developments in Ethiopia, where small-scale growers have been engulfed by debt owing to the high costs of chemical inputs and the environmental stress of climate-change-induced drought.

With similar attentiveness to the industrial mastery and appropriation of nature, Ursula Biemann’s video Deep Weather (2013) depicts the exploitation of the Albertan tar sands, where corporations extract dirty, hard-to-access hydrocarbons, in the process devastating this biodiverse environment in Northern Canada. Portraying the befouled oil fields in the Athabasca River region, her footage, complemented by the artist’s whispered voice-over speculation, also depicts the socio-environmental consequences of fossil-fuel development in such far-away places as Bangladesh’s delta, suffering from the threat of rising sea levels owing to melting polar ice brought on by the anthropogenic warming of the planet. The video is exemplary of a relational geographical analysis, which, like Martin and Huber’s, connects diverse regions and complex Earth systems, showing the human costs of industrial development, among them the monumental effort carried out by Bangladeshi collective labor to reinforce embankments and protect against catastrophic submersion — a disavowed, if distant, externality of the oil industry in Canada that translates into backbreaking toil and increased environmental risk born by the multitudes, many from the underclasses in the global South.

Consider as well Uwe H. Martin’s White Gold (2007–14), another comparative model of North–South and East–West eco-cultural geographies, here joining agriculture, land-use policy, advanced technology, and neoliberal economics. The ten-part video project presents a documentary ethnography of family farmers in Texas, who explain how corporate agriculture has brought financial pressure to buy commercialized GM seeds, flooding the market with cheap products and making organic cotton production ever precarious as a cooperative industry. White Gold develops this analysis further by comparing the Texas cotton industry to the ruinous situation in India, where farmers have received none of the subsidies granted to their counterparts in the United States, leading to debt (owing to rising expenses of chemical inputs, farming technology, and WTO policy that drives down cotton prices) and, tragically, farmers’ suicides on a massive scale. Activists see the cycle as repeating an old colonialist relation of power. Indeed, for the scientist and eco-activist Vandana Shiva, interviewed extensively in this video, these agribusiness arrangements constitute “economic genocide” — a deliberate program, she contends, to eliminate the seed sovereignty and economic independence of Indian farmers, just so corporations like Monsanto can expand their markets worldwide.

These diverse presentations evidence a collective commitment to bringing investigative analysis and visual documentation to bear on industrial modernity’s colonization of nature. While they do so in aesthetically singular ways, there are nonetheless several shared areas of concentration in terms of visual approach. The most notable is a collective investment in documentary video practice, realized through a variety of individual inflections, among which the employment of the researched video essay (joining audio-visual moving images and essayistic narratives to create complex, hybrid aesthetic constructions[ref]On Biemann’s use of the video essay, see TJ Demos, “Video’s Migrant Geography: Ursula Biemann’s Sahara Chronicle,” in The Migrant Image (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 201–20.[/ref]); interview-based portrayals of diverse stakeholders; the use of contextualizing video footage delivered with socio-political analysis and historical investigation (often as voice-over or explanatory titles); and the presentation of philosophical speculative narration. The latter resonates in particular with recent developments in New Materialism and object-oriented ontology, creatively engaging the work of assorted theorists such as Serres, Bruno Latour, Karen Barad, and Graham Harman, among others, in addition to connecting to the climate-justice activism of figures like Vandana Shiva and formations such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). The group’s approach to ethnography and field research, far from exhibiting a naive unawareness of power relations between subjects of knowledge and objects of observation, is critically experimental, involving theatrical reenactments and collaborative, self-reflexive knowledge production (especially in the case of the films of Van Brummelen & De Haan).[ref]For a recent contribution to the discourse around art and ethnography, see Okwui Enwezor, ed., Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far: La Triennale 2012 (Paris: Centre national des arts plastiques, 2012).[/ref] In addition to these various models of ethnographic and documentary practice, the group also offers multiple forms of mixed-media installations, pedagogical presentations (some drawing from the natural sciences), and informative critical cartographies and computer-generated diagrams (as in the work of Ursula Biemann, Elaine Gan, and Helge Mooshammer and Peter Mörtenböck). All of which demonstrate a shared investment in interdisciplinary research, bridging fields as diverse as cultural geography, chemistry, visual culture, agriculture, political science, and — particularly in the case of Emily Eliza Scott — an ecologically concerned model of eco-art history, and more broadly, environmental humanities.[ref]For more on the emerging field of the environmental humanities, see the Transatlantic Research Network in Environmental Humanities (, and the recently inaugurated journal Environmental Humanities (, which released its first issue in 2012.[/ref]

The group’s investment in developing ways to materialize and translate the language of things — the Earth’s systems as much as nonhuman life — resonates as well with the aims of forensic science (as developed conceptually, technologically, and practically in the Research Architecture program at Goldsmiths[ref]See Forensic Architecture, ed., Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014) and[/ref]). In sum, World of Matter defines a cutting-edge mode of collective artistic and interdisciplinary research, mediated through constellations of texts, images, and videos, which shares the imperative to explore how the world matters — how it enters into both materialization and conflicted forms of valuation.

This abbreviated text is drawn from my catalogue essay in the World of Matter catalogue, ed. Inke Arns (Berlin and Dortmund: Sternberg Press and Hartware MedienKunstVerein, forthcoming).


T.J. Demos is a cultural critic, professor in History of Art and Visual Culture, and director of the Center for Creative Ecologies, at University of California, Santa Cruz. Prior to his recent appointment in 2015, he was Reader in the Department of Art History, University College London since 2005. He writes on contemporary art and politics, and is the author, most recently, of The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013), and Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Sternberg, 2013). In 2013, he guest-edited a special issue of Third Text (no. 120) on the subject of “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology.” Demos co-curated the international group exhibition Rights of Nature: Art and Ecology in the Americas, opening at Nottingham Contemporary in January 2015, and Specters: A Ciné-Politics of Haunting, a screening series of artist films at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid in 2014. He is currently finishing a new book, entitled Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art in the Age of Climate Change, for Sternberg Press, due out in later 2015.




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