Nature's waste, impressionists' poison

Helmuts Caune

Interview with scholar and curator Jens Hauser


This year'sOpen Fields” Art and Science festival and the exhibition “UN/GREEN”, organized by the RIXC Center for New Media Culture, is dedicated to the topic of the green colour in all of its aspects, from the scientific to the social. In his speech during the “Open Fields” conference in July, the guest curator of the exhibition Jens Hauser (DE/FR) told the audience about the etymology of the word “green” that is related to that of the verb “grow” in surprisingly many languages, and therefore the green colour is in many cultures associated with the natural, naturalness, life. But, as we are taught by the so-called “greenness studies”, a term coined and a research field developed by Hauser himself, the devil is in the details and all that is green isn't always good and preferable, but can also be harmful and deadly. The initial scepticism about the fact that such analysis of a single colour deserves its own field of study is easily overcome after realising the extent to which the green has become a symbol in our political and social life in the context of climate and ecological crisis. Scientist and curator Jens Hauser, who's been engaged in greenness studies for 30 years, talks and tells about it in his writings and exhibitions he curates. Hauser holds a dual post-doctoral research position at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies and at the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen, and coordinates the (OU)VERT network for Greenness Studies, besides having affiliations and guest professorships in several other universities and research institutions. He has curated more than a dosen exhibitions around the world, mostly dealing with the relationship between art and technology, greenness, new media art and hybrid aesthetics. “UN/GREEN”, which is displayed in the Great Hall of the main building of Latvian National Museum of Art, is the second Hauser has curated in Latvia, first being “Transbiotics” in 2010.

The exhibition is going to take place until September 22.

For how long have you been interested in everything that's green?

For approximately 30 years I've been collecting everything that has to do with ‘green’ in the largest sens of the term – as a colour, as a concept, as ideology, in terms of its related phenomenology and physiology, as well as with regards to its chemical and physical understanding.

Is the “UN/GREEN” exhibition and everything that's packed under it more or less a manifestation of what you've been doing for 30 years, or is there something significantly new that's added to it?

There is! UN/GREEN is definitively the first art exhibition that results from all these years of research. Throughout my academic and curatorial practice, I have previously emphasized the idea that we have to disentangle the notions of naturalness and aliveness. But I suggest that we also have to disentangle the notions of naturalness and greenness. We live in times when we, as human species, are becomimg increasingly symbolic animals, more and more satisfied with symbolics instead of material culture and reality. And there is a problem with that, which digital culture has been amplifying a lot. ‘Greenness studies,’ as I coined it, aims to disentangle the barely symbolic links between greenness and naturalness, but looking at it through the lens of a great variety of disciplines. My own expertise links biology to art and media, RIXC’s background lies more in physics and electronics, and the aestethics and epistemology of waves. Here in Riga, for the first time we stage artworks that question why we, as human species, are so obsessed with hypercompensating for what we have lost – and why do we like to call this green, meanwhile we continue to mess up the planet. Can we really ontologically define what green is? Don’t we always construct green? Green is our medium, located in the middle of our visible electromagnetic field of perception where the human animal perceives brightness in a particular way. At the same time, what we perceive as green is actually nature's waste, which prompts a startling epistemological paradox: to humans a plant only appears green because its chlorophyll absorbs high-energy red and blue light photons for photosynthesis, but reflects the middle spectrum as ‘waste’, so to speak. This spectrum with a wavelength between 490 and 565 nm, which cannot be used for the plant’s photosynthesis, corresponds precisely to the largest spectrum visible to humankind. This leads us to misunderstandings and the fallacy in the argument such as articulated by environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston III: ‘Trees are not really green after we have learned about electromagnetic radiation and the optics of our eyes, though we all view the world that way.’

Isn't there a danger in deconstructing the symbolism of green? All the steps that have been taken in making a lot of people to become environmentally aware are closely intertwined with the symbol of green.

For sure, I do not argue against environmental awareness at all, but rather want to complicate ‘greenness’ as a debatable concept in a way that people understand that it's not enough to just deal with symbols – it's not enough to buy some eco food items or to click the green buttom for two Euros in order to hypercompensate for your plane trip with your 5-year old child for your weekend trip from  and to Paris. It's not enough either to plant eucalyptus plants in the Amazone to increase CO2 sequestration rates, and hypercompensate symbolically for all the original rainforest with all its irreplacanle biodiversity that is lost. It is too easy to stay with symbols. The idea is to really become aware of what green is. Politics act upon symbolic power structures, and course, politically I'm ‘green’, too, as a convinced environmentalist. I see greenness studies as a chance to pull the Troyan horse of interdisciplinarity onto the marketplace of ideas surrounded by ivory towers populated by hyper-specialized idiots, and that we can contaminate people with alternative ideas of how to discuss in a trans-disciplinar way: linking biologists to physicists, environmental activists, people who know about botanics to those specialised in aesthetics and phenomenology. We need this mix of expertise and engagement to come up with solutions to real world problems, meanwhile we are actually greenwashing greenhouse effects away.Mixing disciplines is a political statement we are making with the UN/GREEN exhibition here, linking RIXC’s and my expertise to address greenness as a trans-disciplinary trope, and we use art to make this message understood.

Another concept that often appears in the subtitle of the exhibitionand the conference is “naturally artificial intelligences”, instead of just AI. Could you perhaps disentangle it?

There is a lot of hype around AI right now. And when you look at the development of its related industry, many are very militaristic, surveillance-based, focussing on face recognition, the programming and overall mimicking of human cognition understood as the only way of ‘intelligence’, such as in GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks) or chat bots. What we are interested in is what kind of natural intelligence is ‘out there’, as discussed in biosemiotic approaches that ascribe agency and the capacity of interpretation not only to human minds, but to any kind of living element, such as practiced by the Copenhagen-Tartu school of biosemiotics. Considering that any living element is constantly interpreting information contrasts with the idea that only the human mastermind, in its cerebro-centric attitude, is capable of consciousness thanks to its cognition. With N/AI we ask what we can learn from intelligence in natural systems, comparable in a way that, for example, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi looked at the structures of cells and found equivalents to the modeling the internet’s large-scale topology, based on biological models. So we wanted to actually hijack the notion of AI and shift it beyond the scope of human intelligence only, replicated with software and hardware, and to look at systems of ecosystemic wetware that may have very different types of intelligence that is non-human.

Is there a consciousness anywhere else in nature besides human?

This is a very serious question, but is it the main question in N/AI? Many scholars argue that cognition is more important than consciousness. This idea is already predominant in James J. Gibson's ecological approach to perception in the 1970ies, and Katherine Hayles has recently come up with a lot of writing on what she discusses as non-conscious cognition.

Ok. It's just that from your previous answer I got the impression that you stand by the position that consciousness is necessary for intelligence.

No, quite the opposite. Consciousness may not always be the best option all times, and may sometime even block somatic decision making. Dolphins, without doubt intelligent, are supposed to react in a much more direct way than we do. And just think about how much glucose we consume just in order to run our consciousness organ! Our brain is enabling us to having consciousness, but it also slows many processes down. We, as the curatorial team, do not want to have a very affirmative position, but we want to open up the conversation about which intelligence we are talking about when we mention AI.

What else may be examples of probably non-conscious cognition happening in natural ecosystems? Some that you may consider the most interesting.

Volatile communication, bacterial communication, ground communication, fungi-based communication between plants, mechanisms of adaptation – many of these areas are still totally underdeveloped fields. For example, how can we explain that plants can communicate over distance by sending out effective molecules when fire is approaching? Phermone communication has been brought up by biosemioticians in the 1970s already, but it has not really been studied much in relation to natural intelligence. Many of these processes disappear when we look at plants only through the ‘green lens’, reducing them to oxygen production via photosynthesis, or to their capacity to absorb man-made CO2 emissions. We see green beings mostly today in the light of CO2 sequestration strategies in living forests – the so-called negative emissions technologies (NETs). Here, vegetation is no more than monotonous greenery while in some scenarios even old-growth forests are logged to make way for new, manageable forests, for which models predict that they may absorb more carbon from the atmosphere. And our technical tools reinforce this attitude. For example, the abstract measurements of the satellite-based Normalized Difference Vegetation index (NDVI) scrutinize large pixels of more or less uniform greenery to assess impacts of the CO2 sequestration strategies. So the question becomes: What do you actually focalise on when you measure greenness? There is a video art piece in the UN/GREEN show by Agnes Meyer-Brandis, showing the incoming and outgoing greenness of a forest, the awakening and the sleeping of the trees over a year, reduced to the average monochrome color value in RGB of these landscapes. While in our imaginary a forest is green, and it is difficult to disentangle the symbolic link between ‘forest’ and ‘green’, the actual color of a forest changes all the time. What this work points to is that when we measure greenness today, it's mostly via satellites, and we want to see if it's absorbing enough CO2 to help us coping with the moral guilt of human waste. Once we recognize that the seductive green itself may be considered waste of the plant world in terms of in terms of electromagnetic reflection, this may change the way we look at waste iteself and ‘green ideas’ more fundamentally.

Are you solely responsible for making the participant list, or did you do it together with RIXC?

We clearly favor a mix of expertise together with RIXC which is important, because there's nothing worse for a curator than repeating yourself in multiple exhibitions. It's also refreshing to discover Latvian artists I have not been aware of, in addtion to the open call by which we got about 200 submissions for artworks, which represents a huge interest on behalf of the artistic communjty in this topic which we tried to represent via extremely different positions. I even discovered works by German artist Eva-Maria Lopez, who lives close to my house in Paris, in Riga during the last RIXC festival in September, a total coincidence. Her project “I never promised you a green garden” resembles baroque gardens, such as André le Nôtre's in France, with ornaments similar to those folk art and mandalas, but their floral motifs actually consist of logos from companies that produce or sell glyphosate or GM plants – clean but not ‘green’ gardens. The artist and photographer has also a training as a botanist and a degree in agriculture, and now has also for the first time created a garden only from the seeds of those species that have become mutant and can resist herbicide treatment. In the follow-up exhibition OU \ / ERT in Bourges/France, she is growing these logos actually by using the plants that resist the product they symbolize.

Here, in the UN/GREEN exhibition, Eva-Maria Lopez is showing another form of what can be seen as toxic green as part of a photographic installation. During important football matches there is a special atmosphere in the streets, and we watch them on exceedingly bigger and bigger LED screens. So Eva-Maria went out during such football matches and just photographed what she calls “Wohnzimmergrün”, “living room green” – not denote potted plants, but completely green nightscapes of living rooms polluted by the medial representation of green turf, probably the most unnatural lawn. At the same time the works refers to our over-consumption while always wishing to have the newest and largest device or screen, a tendency that demands for an increased pace of extraction of rare metals. How many poorly paid people in the open mining business around the world are killed? Every time I buy a new Iphone I want to know how many people I kill in Columbia or Nigeria. Media art before did not think about that. Now we look at toxic waste, we look at the toxic conditions to source these metals. And many of these huge LED screens are basically bought to have a better mediated experience of football matches, replacing the direct material encounter.

Somehow related to the issue of domestic representation of greenness in earlier times, we have a performance and an installation by US artist Adam Brown, which goes back to the toxicity of green pigments in the history of art – a very interesting chapter: How many people actually died because of the representation of nature? In the history of painting, green pigments were the most instable and most often degraded exposed to sunlight. Really stable green pigments have only been available since 1775, when the Swedish chemist Scheele invented arsenic-based “Scheele's green”, which was highly toxic. It was developed in Scandinavia, picked up by the chemical industry in Germany, became Schweinfurt or Paris Green, and many impressionists started to use that green... and potentially poisoned themselves. Adam Brown’s live performance at the exhibition opening consists of the reenactement of the original recipe of Scheele's green live under steril conditions in a glove box and wearing a protection suite. He focuses on a related big problem with arsenic-based green wallpapers. There are a lot of stories about Victorian green, and how it was entering people's homes, and only about 50-60 years later people became aware of the fact that this green colour might be just poisoning them.

How did they become aware? Did they simply notice the correlation?

It took some time. Some doctors started noticing symptoms but it took a long time for it to be established empirically. The first warning signs were noticed since the 1820s, but it only became more widespread knowledge by the 1850-60s. In UN/GREEN we therefore show the toxic pigment’s making-of side by side with the LED screens in our living rooms, a kind of wallpaper of today. In the 19th century, you may have inpressed your friends with green wall paper to escape the industrial cities’ greyness, now you invite your friends for beer and football on your big screen.

I’m very interested in all meanings that come with the domestication and reconstruction of ‘green’. In my keynote lecture at the UN/GREEN conference I showed examples of a company, Green Canary, which is providing green grass paintings for Californian courtyards that got dried out. They make their business out of your desire to preserve the image of a perfect green lawn, and you have people in protection suits spraying it over your lawn to give this grass a new hue to make it look nice for your neighbours. While nobody has water anymore “I still can afford the green”, a total masquerade. That's what I mean by the need of a material culture required to go beyond the symbolics of green. Large green surfaces, even without any eco-systemic benefit such as French Louis XIV gardens, have become a symbol of prosperity and power. Back then, only a king could; today it has become a kind of show to demonstrate wealth by keeping a green lawn as large as possible.

If we admit that people need some sort of symbolism for coherent thinking, then perhaps instead of moving beyond the symbols of green you could offer an alternative symbol that would be, let's say, more efficient?

Then we would exchange one problem with another.

Would we?

Maybe. I think we often have a confusion between cognitive action that takes on semiotic pathways, but we cannot reduce semiotics to symbolism. I'm very inspired by Charles Sanders Pierce, and a lot of biosemioticians are Piercians as well. In the Piercian model you have, of course, the symbolic plane, but you also have the iconic and, overall, you have the indexical plane, including manifold interactions between them. So if there is a symbol – and the symbol comes from the Greek súmbolon (σύμβολον), which originally was a physical object, intended as a material indication of identification or agreement, be it a plate or contract to establish a convention – the relationship between the signifier and the signified as a symbol

comes about arbitrarily as a matter of convention evolving through usage. As Pierce writes, the symbol is “connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind” and its meaning “lies in nothing but the very fact of there being a habit” – a symbol to be interpreted thusly and not otherwise.


The relationship between the signified and the signifier as an icon relies on resemblance. And the relation between the signified and the signifying in the index is based on a material connection,  without having to resemble. So I'm possibly very much an indexical person. One can build up interpretation processes that are cognition processes, but which are not exclusively based on arbitrary signs like symbols. Symbolism is often considered superior, because it has to do with the flexibility and the arbitrariness of the human mind to build up new combinations. But it doesn't mean that other sign categories are of a lower order. Now, even take as an example the very different symbolic meanings that scientists working in even adjacent areas symbolically ascribe to ‘green’:  On the one hand, engineers declare ‘green chemistry’ ecologically benign, while toxic algae blooms that have done much to discredit the overused association of ‘green’ with ecological sustainability. On the other hand, when climate researchers speak of the ‘greening of the earth’, they mean exactly the opposite: the alarming effect of anthropogenic CO2 emissions resulting in ‘global greenness trends’ that in the period from 1982 to 2009 increased from 25% to 50%. Within this context, greening, as action, literally means that the global environmental change is altering the dynamics of terrestrial vegetation growth. So, how far can we go with such a symbol? 

Perhaps you can point out just a couple more participants of your choice? You've done a very good job so far. Just one or two more maybe.

Many artists question what a ‘body’ is today, and inhowfar within a larger biosemiotic web also plants have bodies that we may want to imitate. The performance group called Quimira Rosa, meaning the pink chimera, is actually obsessed with ‘becoming plant and trans-species communcation, unfolding as chlorophyll transfusion and tattooing. To inject chlorophyll is not something that you would do normally...

(Laughs.) I don't know.

... but they started with a research question: What can we do to become plant? It’s replacing the question of ‘what it is to be’ by the affirmation that it is all about ‘to become’, much in line with the concept of ‘becoming animal’ in Deleuzian discourse, followed by a lot of philosophical speculation why we should engage in becoming this and that, to become other, and to deconsider arborescent and genealogical thought and to adopt a rhizomatic model of thought instead. Within all these changes in human self-conception,  the ‘becoming animal’ now turns into what I have called ‘plantamorphization’ as a concept in art when people do not ask anymore ‘what is the difference between the human and the animal’, but ‘what are the qualities of the plant kingdom, vegetative qualities, that I would like to complete myself with?’

What does happen to one when one injects chlorophylle?

Well, you can have just experience rejection, or an allergy. There are some aspects in the history of medecine that deal with expected health, since the molecule of chlorophyll is structurally very close to that of hemoglobin, the main difference is that hemoglobin has iron and chlorophylle has magnesium as central atom. So, we can find papers from the 1930s that studies whether the injection with chlorophyle may enable bone renewal. So the artists are building on this cultural history when ‘becoming plant’. First, they staged chlorophyll injection and as a performative action, but now they are themselves really embedded in a scientific research process aiming at developing tools for phototherapy, which is an interesting and unexpected outcome of such art-science experiments.

Ok, so I suppose that's one example.

I want to contrast this example with a very different one, using a totally different medium. What at first sight looks as a very simple one-liner in Spanish artist Joana Moll’s double screen installation

‘DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOREST’ and ‘CO2GLE’ is actually a real-time, net-based installation that displays the amount of CO2 emitted on each second thanks to the global visits to Google, and therefore demonstrates the material impact of digital communication. One monitor counts the estimated amount of CO2 emissions per second, the other displays rows of symbolic little trees corresponding to the number of trees necessary to compensate for the loading of the homepage. It's striking. Not only each time I get on my plane, but every time I upload something which I may even not really need, I’m boosting these cooling centers required for these big servers, which consume energy like crazy. So you have to ask ‘how green is your cloud?’ What energy balance is the consequence if I do this and that? And is digital cleaner than analogical?

What would be examples of new and more efficient biopolitics, if we manage to move beyond the hypocricy of “green”?

I think that they way we look at and interpret green, questions we ask in UN/GREEN, are an invitation to overcome anthropocentrism. For me, this exhibition is a way to make everybody aware of the scope of its own, very limited scope of perception and cognition the human being is capable of. We therefore also have constructed the scenography of the exhibition that it takes you from the purest visible ‘green’ light imaginable, to invisible or multi-model experience of that for what ‘green’ ususally stands in, such as a rainforest as the ‘greenest’ of all environments: Francisco López’”Hyper-Rainforest” is an immersive sound work from original environmental recordings over twenty years in rainforests all over the world. Is this the sound of ‘green’? In fact, rainforests are natural acousmatic environments, which means that the sources of all those sounds representing biodiversity and ‘nature’ remain invisible. After just 20 minutes in the rainforest we begin to understand that we are not that dominant or that we should think more about our huge impact. While getting confronted with our limited capacities we should have a second look at ourselves and question whether ‘greenness’ really is enough to provide us with an ecosystemic view on things,  instead of just boiling it down to a symbol that we, human animals, can easily handle. That would be my ambition. So, to resume, I think the ambition of UN/GREEN is to stimulate a self-critical post-anthropocentric awareness and attitude.