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The web of life

Updated Tuesday 15th June 2010

From COP15: Ecological artist, Aviva Rahmani, shares her rich tapestry of experience on becoming an environmental activist.

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Copyright The Open University


Interviewer: Okay so the first question is something about your personal trajectory. How have you ended up in your own personal life thinking about environmental and cultural issues?

Aviva Rahmani: Well, I think it’s always been a concern of mine because I grew up in the country but my father was a developer, and it made me very upset to see trees cut down so that he could build houses and other things. So I think it’s always been part of what drove me as an artist and as a person. But in the Sixties I got very involved with performance art and activist art, and it quickly became apparent to me that in order to deal with any of the environmental issues or systemic issues, you had to first deal with the human issues, relationship issues.

So I kind of took a detour for twenty or thirty years and dealt with issues of abuse and then in 1990 I decided that I would do a major work on environmental problems, and I began a ten year restoration project called Ghost Nets, which was about restoring a degraded habitat to wetlands, and then I did some more work on restoring wetlands, and I consider this all part of performative artwork.

Interviewer: And where was that?

Aviva Rahmani:
This was mostly in Maine, but I studied about forty sites around the world as possible sites for intervention.

Interviewer: Wow, that must be quite a database of information.

Aviva Rahmani: Yeah, it is. Then in 2005, after Katrina, I made a decision not to fly because of global warming, and shortly after that I met Dr James White, with whom I’m still collaborating. He’s at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he’s the Director of the Institute for Arctic & Alpine Research there, and we’ve been working virtually because I’ve been trying to find ways to work and even have an international impact without flying everywhere. But for this occasion, for COP15, to be an observer there and participate and present and lend an artist’s voice to some of the policymaking, I have flown.

Interviewer: For the first time in?

Aviva Rahmani: Well, I admit I had a couple of short trips but nothing like this. I was on a flying diet for four years.

Interviewer: So the current work that you’re doing, can you say a little bit about that for us?

Aviva Rahmani: Sure, the work that Jim and I started doing was on global warming, and what we did was we designated three conflict zones in relation to rivers and river delta systems. So that was Bangladesh in relation to the Ganges, the Nile and Darfur, and the Mississippi and New Orleans. Now we’re looking at Gulf regions internationally and comparing the effects of global warming and overlaying some of the issues so that we can see where there might be patterns that could indicate a direction we can go that would help restore some of the degradation that we’re experiencing now.

So we work virtually, and there’s a team of other scientists and artists that also participate, and we’ve made a film out of that which is called SOS Gulf to Gulf, and I will be presenting it at COP on the 18th as part of a press conference, and also as part of the workshop that I’ll be doing, a three day workshop. And the workshop is called Trigger Point Theory as Aesthetic Activism, and it’s the idea that it’s possible to analyse and identify very very small areas in the landscape and use them as a point of catalyst to restore a much larger system. I’m actually doing a PhD on that out of Zurich right now.

Interviewer: Can you say something about how your particular role as an artist is embedded in this project, what is it that you as an artist do?

Aviva Rahmani: I think all of it is my role as an artist. I think the discourse is an aesthetic process. I think the desktop sharing sessions that we have that does include a lot of visuals. That’s obviously an artistic practice, but it’s also a performative practice. I think the way I conceptualise, visualise and observe phenomena is very much about being an artist, and it’s very distinct from being an illustrator or simply describing what I see. Although obviously some of it is illustrative and descriptive. But the distinction is that I’m taking an active role in what I observe rather than being led by the scientist or by other people’s ideas.

Interviewer: That’s very interesting. Okay, moving into the future then, as we move through the next decade, over the next one year, over the next five years and over the next ten years out to 2020, how do you see your own personal role and how do you see maybe specifically art’s role within this, within environmental issues, how do you see that changing?

Aviva Rahmani: Well, what I would like to see is that art takes on a much more active role in policy and decision making; that we claim and are allowed to have the space to be part of the political discourse in the sense of the police around the social implications. The biggest change that I foresee happening in my lifetime, in the next few years, is going to be the impact of migration from climate refugees. I think it’s going to be enormous on a lot of different levels but mostly in terms of socio, political and economic disruptions, and the relationship of course to freshwater resources and every other possible natural resource. I think it’s going to make our lives a lot more complex.

So I presume that as a person and as an artist that includes me, and I’ll see different kinds of disruptions that I can’t predict. Some of them are relatively predictable; we know that there will be scarcer resources. We know that it will be a more competitive culture, and we know that it will be a culture that has more conflict in it, that’s just common sense. So how will I adapt to that? I will do my best and let go. But I foresee it as a difficult time that we’ll be going through. Still, I know that you’re going to ask me about how positive I am. I think on a scale I’m probably close to 8.5.

Interviewer: To which end?

Aviva Rahmani:
That I’m positive and optimistic. One of the things that I’ve been studying a lot are the new social research and anthropological material that's coming out on what Kim Stanley Robinson calls the generosity gene. That there’s an impulse in all biological life to understand that we are part of a common community, and it’s in our interests, even if we perceive the world as predator and prey, it’s still in our interest to maintain all life around us and to help each other. You see it in babies. You see it in cats and dogs, all sorts of life.

So even though I think we’re facing incredibly difficult problems and obstacles and odds, I have a lot of faith in our capacity as animals to be smart, and smart in the best possible sense, not in the sense of how much money am I going to make or how I’m going to get over somebody else but - that my survival depends on everything else.

Interviewer: That’s very interesting that you see a cause for hope in our reconnection with our animal nature.

Aviva Rahmani: Absolutely, and that’s a good way of putting it. I think that’s exactly right. I think if anything has been taught to us in the past decade or so it might be to be a little bit more humble about our ecological position as human beings in this web of life, and perhaps we’re coming back to a more indigenous point of view which does understand that we can’t live without all the other life on Earth.

A colleague of mine has a phrase that the climate change might be the way in which we finish Darwin’s sentence, by which he means that if Darwin started us off on a road of thinking about ourselves in connection with the rest of the fauna of the world, that perhaps climate change will be the impetus to finish that thought and to genuinely reconnect with our position in relation to animal species and non-animal species on the Earth. That’s just an interesting way of thinking about it.

Aviva Rahmani:
And the irony is that indigenous peoples whom we are destroying as we speak knew that for thousands of years. And we think we’re so smart in the West.

Thank you very much, it was very interesting. Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

Aviva Rahmani:
It was a pleasure. No, just that I’m probably quite a bit older than you are, and I’m just so thrilled to see so many young people involved with COP15. I know it’s your world that you’re coming to in a way more than my world, but I can’t live without you guys.

Thank you very much.

Exploring climate change


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