After The Shock – In Conversation With Ruben Jacobs

COTVN Interview #2

23 | 12 | 19

From 9 to 13 September 2019, the Cartographies of the Vanishing Now Lab took place in Amsterdam. This five-day art-science laboratory investigated how sensory art, cartographic design and speculative storytelling can contribute to a better understanding of a new unstable world under the influence of cold change.

More than 40 artists, designers, scientists, creative coders, performers and speculative writers came together to work on new knowledge development and artistic prototypes. The Lab set out to capture the impact of the growing ecological instability on the way we organise and model our modern world, trace the forces behind environmental change and shift perspectives to relate differently to our past, present and possible futures. This is the first interview in a series of COTVN interviews and essays.

On 9 September, sociologist and writer Ruben Jacobs opened the Lab week with a talk about how artists use science and technology to re-examine our relationship with the earth – which is the topic of his most recent book Artonauten (2018). In a personal interview, we spoke with Ruben about the shock of the Anthropocene, new narratives for navigating the present, and the role of art and technology.


We live amidst ecological devastation, in a new geological epoch impacted to such an extent by human activity that it is called the Anthropocene. Facing this reality can be quite shocking. How does this shock affect us, and what comes after the shock?

RJ: ‘One of those reactions to shock is that you get into a depressed kind of state. In my experience, it was mainly because our idea of ‘nature’ as this solid, neutral ‘background’ disappeared. For so long it has been something to rely on, something taken for granted which was just there and was still a constant variable in life. But then, the Anthropocene realisation of climate change and ecological destruction gave me a first experience of the background-becoming-foreground.

At the moment this actually began to change, I got a feeling of loss, but also a feeling of gratitude for something I actually had not paid much attention to in the first part of my life. However, until so far, it is not gone yet. I must be able to give this feeling of loss and mourning a certain place. At the same time slowly something different starts growing inside as well, although you might not experience it yet; a new kind of consciousness. It’s hard to describe that consciousness in a very strict, clear way, but it has to do with a feeling of being connected to all life, which I never experienced in that kind of way before.’


Among the connections of life in the Anthropocene, our position as humans is entangled: we relate to animals, plants, weather patterns… even geological layers. How can we relate to such a complexity?

RJ: ‘I think that author and climate expert Clive Hamilton raises quite an interesting point; he reminds us of the fact that, after these anthropocentric ages, there is no way back from being in the center to being in the background. We have a collective power which we can still, in a sense, decide what to do with, without having the illusion of having full control of what happens next. So you have to navigate in the storm and try to find some kind of land. I think that we need to find a story which helps us to navigate that very uncertain new world we are in.

Maybe it also has a lot to do with what some indigenous or animist beliefs hold: a sense that everything is in a certain way human. And by saying everything is human, the human is actually not separate from everything around us, everything has a soul. They actually resolve themselves in the world, with everything having a soul they are part of that themselves, and not separate. So nature is no longer a concept, it doesn’t make sense. By saying ‘nature’ it points out something divided from culture. It is quite interesting how anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism are sometimes put on the same pile, although they are different.’


In the Lab, we call for new narratives to access such interconnectedness. You created the word ‘artonaut’ to describe a certain kind of experimentalists, or artistic researchers. Why do we need new words and narratives?

RJ: ’We very much rely on right metaphors to help make things concrete. In the western world, the ‘modern world’, this grand metaphor which makes a separation of ‘Man’ and ‘Nature’ has become a dominant metaphor. And now, such metaphors steer our very way of organising the world around us. It’s kind of a basic need for humans, we can’t live without these narratives. They sink in slowly and stay for a long time, and then after a long period they are being replaced by another one, because the old ones don’t work anymore. This is a very slow process, but I think we are definitely in a phase in which the old is dying and the new can be born.

Certain terms often maintain a certain way of thinking, because they evoke a specific image that is really hard to escape from. Like ‘artist’ or ‘scientist’ – if you have used these words a lot, the images attached to them are hard to change in dominant thinking. I chose ‘nauts’ because it evokes an image of adventure and exploration, and that is what I’d like to do with the word. Because it accurately describes a feeling of what they are doing.’


So we need artonauts to create these new metaphors?

RJ: ‘Absolutely! Think about the Thom Thwaites example, it is a lovely metaphor, the picture of this guy in the mountains with all these technological extensions trying to be a goat, being in nature but also being this certain kind of eccentric. It really helped me to understand what is means to be human, that it is actually a double position of being part of nature but also being the freak of nature. As a human, we don’t really fit in, and are constantly using culture, technology, all these tools to find our way, our balance in the environment, and we can’t live entirely without it. It is kind of a confusing position, but I think art – imagination – really helps me quite effectively to visualise it and understand it, maybe even more than the intellectual, abstract way.

Talking about ecological thinking, it’s really hard to explain in just language. That may be the whole point: it is this spatial, visual, multisensory way of experiencing the world, and art and imagination can sometimes do that stuff. It’s impossible to put in words entirely, but you can have that feeling of being really connected and in a certain space, feel a position in a space. And I think that is an essential way for humans to make sense of the world. And there, music and art are very important tools.’


How does art contribute to such a cognitive shift?

RJ: ‘In many ways! Firstly, I think arts and imagination play quite a crucial role in making things which are not that visually obvious easy to imagine for many humans, to bring these elements much closer to our sensory experience of the world around us. Secondly, they get past scientific data in all kinds of ways. All these artonauts help to make us sensible for a certain different way of perceiving the whole changing world around us. And I do think that people relate to that more on an intuitive level. The artonauts all do small bits of that gigantic – what eco-philosopher Timothy Morton calls – hyperobject of climate change that you can’t perceive in total, but only in fragments, depending on your whereabouts perspective, and cultural frame. They might not reach the wider public, but they might inspire someone who is able to reach more people. Then this small work did have a certain purpose as well, although it was not directly visible in that moment.

Technology might play a similar role: it is not separate from culture, so how we develop technology – with what kind of values and ideas behind it – determines what it opens up and unlocks for us. That can go both ways, it can be extractive but it can also be empowering and engaging. Technologies have a certain philosophy behind them in the way they are designed, and they can invite us to involve closely with the world around us, or to do the exact opposite.’


Interview conducted by: Michelle Geraerts