Rural Riots, Animist Rituals and Teaching from the Territory
A conversation with the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination
Over the last decade, the compounding social and ecological crises associated with planetary meltdown have entered everyday experience (in ways that will hardly be necessary to review). “This changes everything,” Naomi Klein and others proclaimed, and indeed a far-reaching reconsideration of modernist dogmas – from anthropocentrism and the growth-and-profit imperatives of capitalist economics, to colonial legacies of intersectional and epistemological domination – has been reverberating through the worlds of academia and art and design. Calls for a deep “post-growth” and “more-than-human” social repatterning have entered public debates in many places. And yet, unable to overcome “technological lock-in” and “socio-economic inertia,” the policymakers of nation-states and capital have been unable even to name, let alone transform, the economic logics that are driving biospheric ruination; the squared circles of “green growth,” faith in magical future technologies, and a mild transition to a partly-decarbonized, but still growing energy system have been the best that business and politics as usual could come up with.
In this situation – in which present and future life-possibilities of the humans and other living beings most exposed to the impacts of climate chaos are being sacrificed to profits, power and privilege – a pluriverse of grassroots movements and initiatives has emerged to challenge and resist capitalist necropolitics across the global South and North: La Via Campesina and the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST); Indigenous water and land protectors from Standing Rock to Amazonia, India and Africa; Black Lives Matter and environmental justice movements; Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände, Just Stop Oil and Last Generation, as well as a growing climate justice movement. These groups have put forward effective practical alternatives, including commoning, degrowth, rewilding, agroecology and other reparative agrarian food systems, appropriate technologies fit for repair and reuse, skill-sharing, mutuality and solidarity, and conviviality. Like Standing Rock, the zad (and now we need to add Stop Cop City and Les Soulèvements de la Terre) has been a crucial example of what is possible, as well as an inventive and inspiring catalyst for change.
Jay Jordan and Isabelle Fremeaux (co-founders of The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination) have chronicled and reflected on their experiences at the zad in their new book with Pluto Press, We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself: Entangling Art, Activism and Autonomous Zones. In the 2022-23 CCC critical studies seminar at HEAD, we read and discussed this book (and watched Oliver Ressler’s documentary film on the zad). The following interview was conducted by email from November 2022 to April 2023.
Gene Ray: Your new book, We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself, is a vital document of this moment of planetary meltdown on so many levels. It’s a vivid and riveting account of your experiences at the zad – the Zone à Défendre, punning on Zone d’Aménagement Différé – a long, sustained and now famously successful collective struggle to permanently block plans for a new airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, in Brittany. But it is also more: it’s an indictment of what you call “Art-as-we-know-it,” a system founded in imposed separations “between art and craft, genius and skill, tradition and invention, the beautiful and the useful, art and life.” And your book is an inspired invocation of commoning as a “more than human” mutuality that responds and attends to climate breakdown by re-grounding and repatterning our ways of living beyond the logics of extraction and capital accumulation. You argue passionately throughout for the necessary entanglement of “art, activism and autonomous zones,” for the continuous “twisting together” of the “no” of resistance, disobedience, direct action and self-defense with the “yes” of collective joy, conviviality, and art’s ancient powers of working wonder through the invention of healing rituals and galvanizing myths and stories.
I would like to discuss each of these levels of your book in detail, but perhaps we could begin with a glance at the big picture – the “converging global storms” you refer to in the opening lines of your book. Since the great victory of the zad, conceded by Macron’s government in 2018, and indeed since the publication of We Are ‘Nature’ Defending Itself in 2021, the links between capitalist modernity and the destruction of our biosphere are clearer than ever, and yet now, with war raging in Ukraine, the dominant nations of the world are doubling down on fossil fuels and the chemical-monocultural food system. How do you see the challenges and possibilities of this moment? Are you heartened at all by the last-minute talk of “loss and damages” at COP27, or do you distrust this political theater from above by nation states and policymakers? Where are we now, do you reckon?
Jay Jordan and Isabelle Fremeaux: We are delighted that the book touched you. Writing the first few lines of it however, describing the “converging global storms,” trying to make of sense what the “big picture” was, especially as the book is all about very situated forms of activist and artistic culture, probably the hardest writing we ever did. There probably were over a hundred versions of the first paragraph, and more tears were spilt than ink. We were writing in the middle of the pandemic, and even though our rural and collective lives on the zad were not that affected by the lockdowns, we were drowning in confusion and paralysed by the scale of the storms engulfing our epoch.
You asked “where are ‘we’ now.” We are always a bit uncomfortable with the broad brushstroke “we.” The great collective human pronoun “we” feels a bit too universal for us. Is it the “we” who tonight are sheltering from Russian missiles? The “we” grieving for their friend Edwin Chiloba, a 25-year-old queer activist murdered in Kenya last week? The “we” that lost 2 million homes to the flood waters in Pakistan over winter? Or the “we” of Isa and Jay who live in a yurt where there should have been the duty-free shop of an international airport?
In fact, the “we” of Jay and Isa are not writing from our home today but from a ferry crossing the grey channel, on the last days of 2022. An adrenaline hit is still washing over us. Every time we cross a state border our passports beep. Big red letters flash on the border guard’s screen. DANGEROUS, it reads with a checkerboard of different images of us underneath, all taken in various settings. There is Isa in sunglasses, me pre-transition with a beard, different angles of view. This is because we are flagged by the French state as “fichier S.” S stands for “State Security” and marks out individuals considered a “serious threat to national security.” It is the highest level of such warning system of the ministry of interior and defence and makes it legal to surveil us, including wire taps and gps tracking. But it is not cause for arrest and so normally we just get asked questions about our movements and are let through by the border cops. It is just one of the many state weapons for capital to fight one of its most instrumentalised devils: “terrorism.”
In 2015, French prime minister Manuel Valls claimed there were 10,000 people on fichier S. Three years earlier, when he was Minister of Interior, he declared that the zad, home to 200 people, was “a cyst that needed to be removed.” There is little doubt that most of us living on the zad, blocking an infrastructure project and living six years without the police are fichier S now. Protest is acceptable by the state as long as it is not disruptive or disobedient, basically as long as it remains purely symbolic and ineffective. In the end our biggest crime is seeing the state and market as the generator of crises, rather than the provider of solutions to it.
Summits, whether it’s the G8, G20, Davos or the United Nations, are just political stages where the capitalist petro-sexo-racial extractivist saviour narrative is performed to the world. When we started being part of anti-summit mobilizations in the 1990’s, performing our own scenes of dissensus and conflict around the security fences, from the clown army to the bike block, there was no talk of “green growth” or “net zero.” The declarations and framing of the summits have changed but the mantra remains – economic growth or death.
“We are in a war of worlds,” Donna Haraway reminds us, and we have to take sides. Despite the war on life by the growth economy, neither the Paris accords nor the new heralded biodiversity agreements are legally binding. They are words on papers, tinkerings whilst worlds burn, weapons to wash capital clean, staged performances to keep business as usual. The absurdity exceeded itself this week, when the president for the next UN climate summit was announced. It will be the first time a corporate CEO has been chosen. He happens to be Sultan al-Jaber, the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s national oil company.
But we should not worry, according to US climate envoy John Kerry, Jaber is a “terrific environmentalist,” committed to “transition away from fossil fuels.” Which means burning everything now, to make a quick buck before it’s too late, because either climate catastrophe or the collapse of the fossil fuel market are gonna put an end to the billion-making machine. To ensure that the image of the presidency is washed clean, he obviously has a “green” “alternative energy” project set up, funded with a few crumbs of mega profits. It is all Bread and Circuses.
What we need are ruptures, not a transition. We need more resources channelled towards local grass roots, territorial and indigenous struggles against climate wrecking infrastructures, not the toxic theatre of false solutions.
Which brings us back to scale. It’s true, as you say, that the lines are now clearly drawn (although were they ever blurry?), but whilst that clarity can help us choose sides, the scale of what we are facing continues to grow so huge and overwhelming that it is increasingly difficult to respond proportionately.
Our yule holiday reading has been Paul B Preciado’s latest book, Dysphoria Mundi. It’s an epic tome, part auto-fiction, part philosophical essay, part opera, in which he claims that we are now in a revolutionary present, an epistemic turn that is equal to such a shift as the replacement of the Roman Empire by Christianity. For Preciado, this post pandemic era is the beginning of the end of what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism,” a time when it was impossible to imagine anything else, where all resistance folded in on itself. Class struggle was over according to Fisher, resistance had been reduced to individuals attempting to be resilient and survive the violence of capital.
Now, Preciado writes, there is a fracture between petro-sexo-racial worlds (Putin and Trump governments being an example) and the ecological, feminist, queer, trans and antiracist ones. And, according to him, we are finally moving beyond the toxic existential crime of our era: individuality (and its evil twin, binary categories).
Preciado is trans, and to be able to be prescribed testosterone and transition legally, he had to convince authorities that he was “mad,” that his (masculine) mind was “at war” with his (feminine) body. This is because these are the defining features of dysphoria according to the medical textbooks. But what happens, he says, if we shift dysphoria away from being a technical term for a mental illness (in no way denying the deep pain it causes to those of us who are trans) to the term becoming a way of describing this epoch? Hence: Dysphoria Mundi.
The problem with this epoch he writes, is that we are unable to have the right ethical and political responses to the “converging storms” because we cannot really perceive, grasp or feel what is going on: its scale is just too overwhelming. The collapse of the biosphere, the tens of thousands of migrant bodies dying at borders, the no future narratives of the capitalocene, this multitude of phenomena are “supraliminal”: the opposite of subliminal, they are above our threshold of perception, beyond comprehension.
“Supraliminal” is a concept developed by Gunther Anders when writing about the mass destructive force of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. When a phenomenon is “supraliminal” we are unable to take ethical and political responsibility for it, it is so huge we don’t have the capacity to perceive it, that it throws us into sideration. We can respond to the threat of an individual life, but not to so much death.
Our bodyminds are just not fit for the situation and with such crisis of feeling, perception and meaning, we need to not only put our bodies in the way of bio wrecking infrastructures, from coal mines to cop cities, pipelines to airports, but transform the very infrastructure of our perception.
The ferry is docking. On the big TV in the cafeteria are images of Greta Thunberg next to Andrew Tate. Her response to his dick pic car tweet has become one of the greatest tweets in history and now Tate has just been arrested for human trafficking. What a great way to end the year; the sides are drawn – the macho individualists misogynists fuelled by petro-patriarchy on one side and on the other, those who believe that life is a diverse commons to be shared and nurtured, fuelled by a duty of care. Once upon a time human trafficking was the legal fuel of the capitalist colonial system, perhaps one day those who continue to take fossil fuels out of the ground will be perceived as terrorists.
G.R.: Your book includes an inspiring call for “entangling” determined resistance with the affirmative joy of cultural creation and convivial commoning. Both the zad and the prayer camps of the Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, in North Dakota, were exemplary in the strength of their “no” but also in their prodigious invention of new struggle forms, rituals and ceremonies. Both also showed great care and restraint, in refusing escalations of violence that would have given the state an excuse for maximum, unlimited repression. In the long run, I’m sure both struggles will for these reasons be counted as great victories for the defenders of life on this planet, despite the differences in context and immediate outcome.
Could you tell us more about this aspect of the zad: could you elaborate on the strategic entangling of the “yes” and the “no,” and how all those beautiful rituals were created? Could you point to what you see as the most important lessons learned in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, about how struggles can be organized and conducted? And could you give an update on how the land-tenure compromises are holding up today? What is life like on the zad, now that the threat of imminent attack by the state has been lifted?
J.J & I.F.: We have always been very inspired by a beautiful phrase once spray painted on a wall in Bolivia by the anarchofeminist collective Mujeres Creando: “Be careful with the present you build, it must look like the future you dream of.” This is much more than a poetic saying, for us, it is a genuine strategic principle. It’s the core principle of prefigurative direct action, the idea that we must not wait for the future, not wait for the next government or UN conference of Parties to save us, or the next revolution to emancipate us or the end of the world to kick us into action, but as David Graeber used to say, must live now “as if we were already free.” Today we’d probably add that as well as “looking” like the future you dream of, your present should “feel” like it.
And this is probably the greatest and most exhilarating challenge of life on the zad today: how to live up to the expectations that this extraordinary struggle has generated? How to adapt to a profoundly transformed sense of temporality (from the intensity of pushing back the risk of police attack to the deep and long-term projection on the land)? And indeed how to sustain the entanglement between the “yes” and the “no” that we see as a determining factor in successful struggles?
There is no magic recipe for how the incredibly creative forms of resistance emerged from the zad’s struggle against the airport and its world. But there is little doubt that the rich (and often immensely complicated) diversity of what we called the movement “composition” created a fertile terrain for new ideas.
You have to imagine an assembly filled with dairy farmers next to anti species vegans, urban squatters next to retired locals, anarcho-primitivists next to libertarian communists, trade unionists next to naturalists, homeless runaways next to ex mayors – when all those different life experiences, points of view entangle, it is inevitable you have creativity. It is like edges of ecosystems, where there is the largest amount of different relationships between species, and the creative force of evolution is strongest. Whilst there were divergent ideas on numerous issues, when you have a clear common objective, No Airport on these lands, and a common enemy, the government and multinational corporations building it, it is easier to stick together and see diversity as strength rather than a potential complication. Added to this was the sheer material base that opened so much potential. The peasant farmers who love to move big things with their tractors (the old electricity pylon that formed the base of the lighthouse for example) or get a massive kick when they join 500 other tractors to block the city. Or the carpenters and sawmill folk who stay up for nights on end in the middle of the evictions, building a new the massive oak timber frames for the assembly hall to replace the one destroyed by the cops, and then 300 people carrying in the huge structure for kilometers across the land at night, in defiance of the government.
The fact that the assemblies and all the working groups were debating and dreaming up action ideas, right on the land exactly where they wanted to put the airport, it’s so different from our previous experience of organising when we lived in London, when you were in a social centre or university rooms organising for an action against a bank, a museum funded by fossil fuels or even organising a climate camp. You never created on site, you did your “recky” (reconnaissance), the site visit, which was always a fun “secret agent” kind of moment. You did the action, you went home. There was a sense of disconnection somehow, however passionate one felt, the energy felt less powerful, here there was a sense that the land kind of held us, inspired us, guided us to what to do.
When you are organising on the land itself which is threatened, it de-abstracts the struggle immediately, it creates a sort of “anti-capitalist realism” (excuse the pun), it is so tangible and so impossible to separate from your experience of daily life.
Even making coffee in the morning in your squatted farmhouse, or planting potatoes in the fields becomes a living barricade, life in the way of the bulldozers.
And in this way every gesture takes on meaning. In such a “disenchanted” world, where we are so distracted and fragmented, so prone to cynicism and despair, this form of life is very special.
Of course, with the cancellation of the airport project in January 2018 much has changed. The big gamble taken by most of us here to engage in some legalization, has meant that a lot of energy has been devoted to ensure that a diversity of activities, agricultural, artisanal and cultural, and ways of carrying them out, can keep on being deployed, despite the fact that “legally” the only thing allowed on this zone is “agriculture.” Here we coin this strategy the “body and cloak.” i.e. the cloak is the legal surface, us putting up with the bare minimum of legal requirements so as to be able to maintain activities and approaches that are clearly outside the norm underneath.
Land leases have been secured for 9 years, and negotiations with the authorities are still under way for our housing, which are still squats, to ensure that threats of eviction are definitely a thing of the past (thus avoiding the practical and psychological precariousness that come with them, and enabling the collective capacity to keep growing roots). This involves not only challenging planning permission rules but also (maybe above all) demonstrating how rebuilding the commons can constitute a response to the toxicity of our epoch, which is based upon their methodical dismantlement and systematically prioritises individualistic and profit-making endeavours over collective and caring practices.
Skillshare, mutualisation of resources, collective decision-making and conflict resolution, a deep attention to the relationships with other humans and more than humans are a constant and very complex lifeline on the zad. There is still a flurry of activities that make this territory alive, from cattle breeding to collective market gardens, beer brewing to black smithing, bread making to sewing, carpentry, forestry, car (and all sorts of vehicles) repair, bike maintenance, massages, herbal medicine, administrative book keeping, and more.
Like the willow trees that sprout from our hedgerows here, we must remain flexible and adaptive to stay alive. So many movements are destroyed by rigidity, and in the culture of urgency that leads to “action..action…action” – hence the term “activist” – there is rarely time to reflect deeply on experience, and so bad habits and unsuitable forms remain. An all-women working group spent months looking at the way decisions were taken here and has proposed a new “architecture of the movement” and as we write it is being tested. It modified the structure of assemblies so as to encourage greater participation from the inhabitants and a more fluid system of decision making.
The last few years have been very intense and in many ways traumatic, especially the evictions of 2018. There isn’t (yet) a culture of working on trauma here. But more and more attention is being paid to questions of collective care. Issues of systemic oppressions such as sexist and sexual violence are being taken increasingly seriously by various working groups and protocols. There has also been a two-year long survey that has just ended, encouraging the community to reflect upon its care needs and desires.
It was recognising this trauma and the difficulties of shifting from the stage of the struggle against the airport to the unknown future, that motivated the creation of the Ritual Action Cell (CAR in French), a collective we co-founded with -h-, another art-activist duet. Ritual is a tool of transition, it holds us together when we shift shapes, grow and change. All ritual and magic are based on the amazing capacity of human beings to create themselves, to transform and become what they are not, which is not only a human capacity and the basis of all performance, but the fundamental ingredient of the living world. Inspired by age old traditions whilst fabricating our own aesthetics, that we call “animist kitsch,” the aim of the CAR was to re-inscribe our lives in the cycle of life and seasons, and celebrate together the joy of being part of this land and all its inhabitants, whilst honoring the legacy of a unique struggle.
Rituals constitute a powerful architecture to anchor the collective by giving it strength and shared intentions, when the clear enemy of the airport has gone, as well as taking part in the elaboration of a common narrative and imaginary. As Isabelle Stengers reminds us, there are no commons without “commoning”: commons are the fruit of relationships and practices, at their heart are customs that must be created and deployed in a culture that has almost eradicated them.
In that sense, rituals are in themselves a beautiful entanglement of the “yes” and the “no,” they refuse the “disenchanted” world and revere life as sacred, not, as Starhawk reminds us, as something we bow down to, some supernatural being, but as something totally real that we value, such as the land, and are prepared to fight for. For us ritual is also the opposite of what we term “extractivist art,” because in ritual you are not making a performance “about” a struggle, exported into an art space where value is shifted from a specific community to the art world and artist career.
Ritual is by its nature reciprocal, it gives back to the land, to the community of humans and more than humans. We see so much contemporary art and performance as simply impoverished ritual, ritual without a place, gestures lacking shared meanings or community. It is Culture without reference to its etymological origins – cult and terra – to cultivate and look after the earth. Culture without the cult – the reverence for life that we so need in these stormy times.
Holding onto the “NO” is key here, there would be nothing worse than becoming another “alternative eco-village,” so easily digested into green capitalism. As we write these lines, a weekend gathering of Les Soulèvements de la Terre (the Uprisings of the Earth) is drawing to a close. More than 200 people from across the country have shared their local struggles against destructive infrastructures and the current carnage that is the agro-industrial model, and worked to build strategic alliances and reinforce each other whilst grabbing land back, much of which in the future could be falling into the hands of industrial agriculture, as about half of France’s farmers are due to retire within a decade. The event is called the “interlude” and they are preparing for the next “season” of actions, a nod the cycles of life. “Take back the land and block the industries that poison them” the new networks website declares. “Entre la fin du monde et la fin de leur monde, il n’y a pas d’alternative” (Between the end of the world and the end of their world, there is no alternative).
Over the last year there have been headline grabbing actions by les Soulèvements de la Terre, often merging mass trespasses with public acts of “disarming” the toxic machinery to reduce further “violence.” In broad daylight Lafarge concrete factories have been “disarmed” by hundreds of people in white hazmat suits. The network aims to nourish local struggles across the country, linking them together with a reciprocal process of support. As a result, the méga-bassines, a previously little known industrial agricultural techno fix and false solution for storing water, which destroys the local hydrologic systems with huge man-made lakes, and privatizes the water for a few farmers, is now a national debate, thanks to mass actions against them.
With its history of strategies merging radical resistance with peasant struggles and its spaces to hold big gatherings, its dormitories and capacity to feed big crowds, the zad continues to be a land from which resistance emerges. For the folk coming from local struggles to network during the interlude, the zad still has an “aura,” its hedges and fields tell the story of a 40-year long struggle and victory despite all odds. The meeting took place in the Ambazada, a big hall made out of the clay and wood from the zone, built during the struggle, the foundations of which were made out of old cement telephone poles once used as barricades.
For the folk meeting in there, they are enveloped by a nourishing sense of meaning that no grey conference hall could ever have, let alone an online video call. In the woods and wetlands around, the airport is only a ghost now, but the spirit of rebellion, the “no,” will not die easily.
G.R.: I would like to follow up on your wonderful remarks on the Ritual Action Cell (CAR) and your notion of “animist kitsch” for re-attuning to the cycles of life, land and seasons. In your book, you write that ritual “is the ancestor of all art and its future if we want to build worlds that reclaim the commons, rather than nourish extractivist culture.” Throughout the book, you contrast this creative power of re-enchantment with extractivist art, or what you also refer to as the system of “Art-as-we-know-it.”
I think your critique of contemporary art (and its world) and your recovery of art’s older energies are so important for art students to be aware of. While students are certainly bringing the new social and planetary struggles into the art schools, there is still a lot of transmitted bias and institutional resistance to this older practice of ritual making and re-enchantment. This is often the signal sent when, for example, “romantic,” “nostalgic” and other “bad words” are thrown around in an art school. Could you say a little more about this – and about any pedagogical or political practices that might be able to address it. What is to be done, if anything, inside the art schools? Could they too be reclaimed as a commons? Are there any forms of contemporary art that for you are engaging helpfully with planetary crisis and meltdown?
J.J. & I.F.: We would love to believe that art schools could become utopian incubators for imagining new ways of being in and making worlds. We often dreamt of an art school reclaimed as commons. When we deserted the metropolis and our senior lecturers’ jobs in the academy (Jay taught Fine Art, Isa Cultural Studies), our plan was to set up a rural school for art, activism and permaculture design in a new commune on an abandoned farm in Brittany, just an hour from the zad. We both deserted because neoliberalism had eaten away the heart of the UK University system, any spirit of creativity or audacity had been drowned in bureaucracy and competitiveness. Students weren’t learning to be radical, they were, at best, being fed radical ideas. How could they really grow into genuinely active beings when they were surrounded by depressed burnt-out staff who no longer believed in what they were doing?
Universities had become machines to produce conforming workers rather than critical thinkers and doers. For us deserting was a form of disinvestment. Trans ecologist and novelist Otter Lieffe describes it as “moving the resources and energy away from the structures of oppression and building something better.” We could no longer feed a machine that we fundamentally disagreed with.
bell hooks’ belief that “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” was clearly no longer true.
Who in the academy was feeling a sense of possibility?
One of our long time inspirations for something radically different had been The Highlander Folk School, a US-based grassroots rural adult learning center set up in 1932 whose early efforts focused on the celebration of local art and culture but soon turned to political organising and aimed to build local leadership for social change; at first in union organising and then within the civil rights movement.
In 1955, Rosa Parks, worn down by the deep racism of the south, did a two-week workshop at Highlander with over 40 participants involved in the Civil Rights movements. She left reinvigorated and went on to refuse to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, causing one of the many sparks that lit the powder keg that brought down official segregation in the USA. At another of Highlander’s workshops, folk singer and activist Pete Seeger learned the words to “We Shall Overcome,” the gospel song that became the anthem for the civil rights movement. The pedagogic aim of Highlander was to build empowering temporary communities with all learning anchored in the conflict of struggles, where the act of mixing black and white students was a daily act of disobedience. Community and Conflict were the two keywords that inspired us.
The institution still exists 90 years on despite raids and mass disinformation campaigns in the late 1950s discrediting it as a “communist training school”. The Ku Klux Klan even described it as a magnet for subversives and “sex orgies.” A state committee investigating its “un-American” behaviour, wrote that “The ‘school’ was not and is not a ‘school’ in the normal sense of the word. No regular classes are held…
The ‘school’ seems to be more interested in the questions that bring about community unrest and chaos rather than in the advancement of the science and arts of education.” Firebomb attacks followed, the last of which by white supremacists who burnt down their archives as recently as 2019. Our dream for rural France was a mixture of Highlander’s anchored disobedient politics with the experiment in art and life of Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus.
It was a big dream. But we craved a place where the relationships between teacher and student were truly reciprocal, where the myth of the individual genius was replaced by collective practices, where extractivist culture was replaced by a culture of care. Where evaluation was based on how much the “work” was creating the conditions for more life to flourish, rather than nourishing the systems that are responsible for the breakdown of planetary life support systems.
We imagined a place where the learning spaces were not in concrete “neutral” boxes but ecosystems and places with rich stories, such as communities and territories in struggle. We wanted seminars in fields whilst weeding vegetable and workshops where material autonomy and tools of disobedience would be built. Visiting facilitators might teach collective decision making, or lock picking for squat opening, or making one’s own herbal remedies or building drones that sprayed LSD onto cops.
It never got built because we ended up moving to the zad, where we immersed ourselves 24/7 in the fight against the airport and we saw how, in the fire of collective struggle, learning becomes accelerated, filled with meaning and inflamed with audacity and creativity. No formal institution or “art school” could ever provide such rich terrain. Here you could learn everything from building your own house, to planting potatoes, blacksmithing to press relations, welding to mass catering, screen printing to barricade building. Nearly every new building built here was an open workshop in skill-sharing: people learnt medieval carpentry techniques, how to roof, how to make earth and straw bale walls, how to do electrics. We also ran mass direct action trainings, like giant rehearsals and live action role playing games to defend the zone from the threat of evictions, with 1000 people of all kinds of backgrounds taking part, despite the head of the Region trying to ban the trainings calling it a “school of violence.” With its necessary dimensions of collective decision making and conflict resolution, the zad was perhaps Europe’s biggest open-air school in new forms of life and resistance.
Now post-airport cancellation and as the heat of struggle reduces, the question returns to us: shall we set up something more formal here, as part of the aim of the zad to be a material base for struggles elsewhere? There are however two big problems with the very notion of art schools. One: the word “art.” Two: the concept of school. Both are ideas maladapted to this particular moment of historical urgency There is still a kind of fantasy floating around that suggests that both art and schools are somehow neutral (but essentially “progressive”), but these institutions were fashioned by the very violence at the heart of dualistic colonial patriarchy, and now have been further poisoned by neoliberal capitalism.
As Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us, in the thousand or more languages spoken in Africa there is no old word “that well translates the word Art.”
This is also true for most European Languages. “Art-as-we-know it” is a recent invention, it emerged around 1750 in the European Metropolises, at a time when the concept of the museum and the concert hall did not even exist. The idea of a detached work, by an individual genius, with no function beyond aesthetic, to be contemplated in silent reverence in a white cube was unimaginable. Art always had a world, a function and community to anchor it in.
Take an an altar piece, for example, it would have been dedicated to a particular saint, have specific healing functions for the visitors, sometimes they were even painted to reflect the fall of light in the church coming through the window where they were set. The idea that art is powerful and free because it is detached from worlds, is the toxic transcendental logic that enabled the colonizers and looters to deprive communities of their worlds.
As the empires grew, the museums filled with ritual tools ripped from their worlds. “Violently separating people from the objects they hold in common, and objects from the communities that create them and give them different meaning, is what we now call art,” writes Ariella Azoulay in her extraordinary book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. For her, the plunder of communities for the collections in the imperial museum is the world-destroying violent origin of what is called modern art: “Art became a way to avoid engaging in the world shared with others; it is now a field of expertise ruled by imperial principles that have little if anything to do with care for the shared world.”
The invention of art arose hand in hand with beginnings of industrial capitalism, and it rested on the same philosophical myths that enabled extractivism everywhere: the toxic dualisms between nature and culture. Malcolm Ferdinand, author of Une Ecologie Décoloniale describes how the dualistic opposition that separates nature and culture (or environment and society), has established a vertical scale of values that places “Man” above nature and in turn enabled the destruction of life, gender inequalities, social misery and the idea that some lives are disposable. As the Just Stop Oil activists, and the accompanying shocked bourgeois press coverage of their symbolic attacks on glass protected “masterpiece” paintings, reminded us recently, the universal marker of “civilization” – art – is still more valuable than life in petro-patriarchy.
As for schools, the crisis is total. The absolute recuperation of education by market ideologies that Ivan Illich envisioned over half a century ago, has taken place. “Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting,” he wrote in his landmark book Deschooling Society. Can anyone argue that art schools today enable such direct participation with spaces that have any meaning outside of the extractivist machines of markets and colonial logic of museums?
If we take seriously Preciado’s recommendation to transform our very infrastructure perception, then what kind of infrastructure of learning would this involve? If we are to build learning spaces based on a nonbinary decolonial and queer understanding of an entangled rather than separated life, what would they feel and look like? Do we really need new schools or rather should we take a page from the romantics and build their dream of “invisible churches,” places where we learn together to sense the beauty that could re-enchant the world? How do we create the conditions where we unlearn the norms of empire and emerge as creatures that do not conform?
“The idea of slowing down is not about getting answers,”
writes poet, philosopher, psychologist Bayo Akomolafe, “it is about questioning our questions.” His essay on slowing down in an emergency is a beautiful call against a culture of urgency, whereby “hurrying up” all the time, we “can lose sight of the abundance of resources that might help us meet today’s most challenging crises. We rush through into the same patterns we are used to… Slowing down is thus about lingering in the places we are not used to.” That kind of lingering is often the best kind of learning.
All this may seem old school to the purveyors of cool contemporary culture, and yes, it is the oldest fucking school of the lot, we can learn so much by slowing down and paying attention to the living world that we are entangled in. Medieval musicians would learn to play their lutes with instructions that they must mimic the gestures of animals to get a certain sound: a finger should move like “an emaciated crow perched on a bare tree” or “the nonchalant flick of a carp’s tail.” This of course assumed that the student had spent time observing the more than human beings they shared worlds with, and that they did not spend their life in a world that referred only to humans and machines as creative agents.
Deep observation and connection with living seems to us to be one of the keys in this era, a kind of foundation for all learning perhaps. And it can help us unlearn. We can begin by stopping to use the words “nature” and “environment,” we can stop having this idea of a backdrop against which we act, but that we are immersed in an ongoing process of co-creation and creative emergence. We can finally accept that humans were never at the center of anything, that the world does not turn around us and that art and world making is not something only humans do.
Biology is revealing, what most indigenous cultures knew all along: life, from the scale of microscopic cells to the whale, is a process of transforming a feeling, a sense of the world, into a fleshy body. “Life is feeling becoming form,” says marine biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber. The form of the old oak tree we see as we write this is the expression of its long life, and all its attachments, to soil, water and millions of beings it needed to thrive, in this particular place over the century. Its gnarly shape that reaches up for the gift of the sun and down to the gift of water, is a living sculpture, a reflection of its needs and the way it satisfies them, a distinct self that emerges out of a specific felt experience. The ontological shift that the west is living through gorgeously muddles, queers and complexifies everything. If we understand that life is an outside that is also an inside, then it will be regarded as no different from art, because it too is simply form emerging from feeling.
All struggles are battles of the imagination, and stories that threaten the hierarchies and structures of domination are often dismissed as irrational and unrealistic. It’s always easier to hold onto cynicism rather than hope in these dark times. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, to imagine a better world is always much riskier than despair.
Ours is not a call for the abolition of art, but simply a plea that we practice an art of care, an art of life. An art that makes and transforms worlds. This means stepping out of our habitual ways of perceiving and behaving, and that is always scary. When we are facilitating and training, with the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, we often share a model of learning: it is a series of two concentric circles, the one in the centre contains the words “comfort zone” and the surrounding one, “panic zone”. We suggest that the trainees try to inhabit the edge between panic and comfort, because that it is where true learning occurs.
As we write, we have just been offered a job to curate a three-month long event in the summer of 2024 with a major distant learning institution, the CNAM (Centre National des Art et Métiers) and the Lieu Unique (Nantes’ center for “contemporary cultures”). The theme, Learning in the Anthropocene, is at the very core of our interests and interrogations (our comfort zone) and the general framework of the project promises to offer a real latitude to explore it. Yet the institutional context puts us very near panic mode. How will we balance between the grassroots zad life and the monumental metropolitan state institutions? Will we be able to propose acts of disobedience against the capitalocene? Will we manage to turn this into an opportunity to build a culture of resistance?
When we work with institutions we always have one key principle “be prepared to let go of your cultural capital.” Which simply means, refusing to be censored, not worrying that the project might upset the institution, and putting the socially transformative aspect in-front of our “career.” This means accepting that perhaps we will never be re-invited to that institution! (As happened with the Tate Modern in 2009.)
We have no idea what we are going to cook up for the summer of 2024, the future always seems to be coming at us faster than we expected, but in the end the questions that drive us will remain the same: How do we create learning spaces that are imbued with deep meaning and where ideas and emotions become the fuel for radical action? How do we engage all our senses so that new ways of feeling, perceiving and naming things emerge? How do we create a space of courage and care, where it does not feel too scary to mutate, disobey and desert the system? How can we unlearn deadly dualism and re-enchant our worlds?
Epilogue for the war of worlds
Just as we were about to send the final answers to this interview, an event turned our worlds upside down (again), an event that is clearly a big turning in the “war of worlds” in France. We mentioned the huge water reservoirs (mega-bassines) and Les Soulèvements de la Terre in the interview. Well last Saturday, 23 March, there was a huge action against one of the mega-bassines construction sites at Sainte-Soline. Many in other regions have already been declared illegal through court actions. Saturday’s demonstration was banned, and yet 30,000 people, peasant farmers and activists from France and internationally, from the Mohawk nation to Chilian water wars, turned up and disobeyed.
Under a spring sun, the snaking crowd in three fingers approached the huge hole in the ground, aiming to get inside the giant crater, a symbol of an empty future. The French state decided to violently attack the crowd with 3200 police launching 5000 explosive grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets in just 2 hours! 200 people were injured, 40 seriously, some have lost eyes or have been disfigured. Two people are hanging onto life, one still in a coma ten days later. The police even blocked the ambulances coming to help. The press, fed by the interior ministry, underlined that one of the seriously injured was fichier S (as though it meant he deserved to die?!) All this violence because we were trying to get into a giant empty hole?
A few days later, with right wing media repeating terms like “eco-terrorism” on loops, and to distract us from the ultraviolence of the state, the interior minister announced that he would have the Soulèvements de la Terre disbanded and banned. All this has been headline news in the French media for days. How a loose network made up of unions, activist groups, farms, and NGOs will be banned we do not know. If it goes through however, there could be a total ban on folk coming together, on hiring halls to meet, on fund raising, on having any comms with that name or any similar types of actions. There are ten days to respond, a call was published to ask for people to say they too are part of the earths uprisings, as we write 61,000 people have signed.
A few weeks ago, Macron pushed through a new pension law without a vote, resistance and strikes have been galvanised across the country as his government is becoming more authoritarian daily. The attack on Les soulèvements de la Terre is to be understood in this context: the movement has become a powerful, diverse and effective response to climate breakdown. A leaked secret service note about the movement, aimed to legitimise the ban revealed a surprising kind of eulogy and a road map of what kind of actions and movements freaks power out. “The Soulèvements de la Terre,” the note claimed, “by their inventiveness, their level of organisation, their influential power, their capacity to mobilise and to give national and media echo chamber for local struggles they associate with, is becoming a major actor in radical ecology struggles.”
The main threat of course is that the movement is popularising the notion of “disarmament” aimed at models of production, not consumption. Changing what we eat fits into capitalist logic, new markets are created, what threatens the state is actions that put into doubt the very models of production.
Last night the interior minister called for another collective to be disbanded, a legal support group that works with radical movements. He also asserted that there would be “no more ZADs set up in our country. Neither in Sainte-Soline nor elsewhere” (despite the fact that no one had ever thought of setting one up against the méga-bassines). He presented a map of hundreds of local territorial struggles, and said he was setting up a special “anti-zad” unit!
It is a declaration of war against the radical ecology movements that are attached to territories. The state’s fear of another zad is the backdrop to this repression, their fear that others might set up camp in forests, wetlands and prairies, fall in love with them and defend them against destruction whilst simultaneously showing the world that there are other ways of producing and being together despite the state, is what terrifies them. The most dangerous moment in movements are when they begin to win, and we may well have just turned the corner…