By Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez
“Growing up, I remember detesting the long, freezing prairie winters, but now I understand the necessity of winter for these lands, and in the context of climate change, long, cold winters are beautiful resistance to colonialism…When we fight against Euro-Western philosophies that see the value of the Earth only in terms of its extractable resources, we are fighting for cold winters, for sage, for the prairies, for home.”
One of the more destructive human behavior patterns is the colonialist drive. Colonization, expansion, and extraction all have historical origins in the act of treating the other (fellow humans, women, non-humans, nature) as an inferior subject or object, ready to be extracted from or enslaved to enhance the colonizer’s welfare and well-being.
How can we better understand the intricate relationship between colonial histories, contemporary conflicts, and climate change? Sociologist Razmig Keucheyan writes on environmental justice and racism in the light of contemporary capitalism, which is productivist (seeking to increase productivity indefinitely) and predatory (programmed to exploit and exhaust natural resources and biodiversity). Being irreversibly tied to carbon (coal, oil, and gas) it is clear that industrial capitalism is necessarily fossil capitalism. “This is exactly why the environmental crisis doesn’t render past conflicts and divisions obsolete, but on the contrary reinforces them.” Matteo Pasquinelli develops the concept of cyberfossil capitalism, combining two technological lineages: the civilizations of carbon and silicon respectively. He categorizes “the one of energy as a medium of motion and the one of energy as a medium of control and communication, the paradigm of ecology and the one of cybernetics.” The two regimes, Pasquinelli writes, carry different energetic costs and also “different colonial costs, having been developed at different historical stages and at different latitudes of the planet.” The concept of cyberfossil capitalism thus brings together the two regimes of information and cognitive labor, and fossil energy and manual labor that have historically held opposite aspects of capitalistic development.
With climate change, long-standing environmental inequity is becoming more and more visible. Such inequality is experienced by different segments of the population – class, gender, racial groups – in their relationship with nature, and more specifically in response to the effects of climate change. They reflect in one’s chances of being exposed to pollutions or toxic waste, which are much greater if one belongs to the working class, or to a racial minority, depending on which country one lives in. Similarly, flood-prone areas or neighborhoods near chemical plants or dense traffic infrastructure will typically be cheaper, and hence attract poorer levels of a society.
Empathy consists of the capacity to move or to be moved by someone or something. Reframing it as a means of communication, a method, and a goal is a constructive notion that rethinks the human geo-historical impact on System Earth. Using the concept of the Anthropocene epoch, geologists, philosophers, and social and natural scientists alike have debated and popularized its discussion in recent decades. It re-positions the destructive relations between humans and non-humans, but especially between humans themselves.
Current empathy research in the social sciences, feminism, and art focuses on two “turns”—the reflexive turn and the affective turn. In the early 1990s, feminist theory challenged the notion that the scientific representation of knowledge is objective, and introduced a focus on the importance of being as a mode of knowing. This gave rise to the reflexive turn in feminism. During the previous decades in social sciences, the reflexive turn led researchers to the systematic and rigorous disclosure of their methodology and their own subjective views. As an extension of this movement, the affective turn in feminist theory and the social sciences reflected a body’s capacity to affect and be affected, marking a significant shift away from text and discourse as key theoretical touchstones, in turn placing the body and personal experience at the heart of the debate.
Empathy gradually came to the fore as a notion that made it possible to view feeling as knowledge, functioning as a window on the experiences of others. This “politics of empathy” is used by researchers and artists in an attempt to understand and support the actions and motivations of those under study. An empathic approach that combines narrations of lived experience through first-person testimonies alongside others’ observations or more objectifying theoretical meditations, enables the viewer to feel and understand the material and cultural context. However, debates about the notion of empathy within the field of transnational and black feminism have recently highlighted the danger of a generalized understanding of empathy as a sentimental attachment to the other, and also even the risk of “cannibalizing” the other through the mask of caring about her or him and about her or his situation. Instead of considering empathy from the point of view of the abolition of the hierarchy that underpins it and from the spirit of “affective solidarity” that emanates from it, too often empathy slides into pity, especially nowadays, when so often socially or politically privileged people express their concern for the “global others.”
Following Clare Hemmings’ proposal to address the concept of solidarity and social justice, Carolyn Pedwell writes about the politics of the postcolonial affect. Taking under scrutiny Jamaica Kincaid’s essay A Small Place (1988), Pedwell suggests “emotions such as sadness and grief, but also empathy, are not universal, as liberal narratives would have it, but rather radically shaped by relations of history, power and violence. In a contemporary context in which the affective charge of being moved by empathy is positioned as cure to legacies of injustice, A Small Place offers an important reminder of the complex relations and hierarchies which determine who can move, and be moved, and who is fixed in place.” This uncompromising mode of affective perspective-taking by those usually viewed merely as empathetic postcolonial objects refuses to repress the sadness, anger, and shame that fuels it. It is a witness to how these affects can be “affirmative in their demand to re-open the archives of history, to keep the past alive precisely for the political work of the present.”
In summer 2013, I invited the artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian for a project as a part of a series I curated at the Jeu de Paume around the notion of empathy. It was a hot summer with intense moments of humidity, causing a branch, the lowest and oldest one on a plane tree of 150 years, to break and fall off. Natascha encountered this branch on her stroll through the breathtaking garden next to the mansion where the exhibition later took place. The wide mansion from the 19th century hosts an exhibition space, but also functions as a nursing home for elderly artists from all kinds of disciplines. A unique place with a social mission, it encouraged Natascha to reflect on what happens to us all, but especially to artists in the neoliberal societies of the global North when we get old and our bodies gradually lose their abilities.
In the course of the project, Natascha was staying in a guest house next to the nursing home. There, she was able to meet some of its residents. While doing research in the garden and in the mansion, observed their daily practices and routines while also learning some of the residents’ personal stories and about their relationships with the garden. In addition, she researched the history of the Smith sisters who were the owners of this enchanted place in the early 20th century. One sister was a painter while the other traveled across continents and was a very educated woman. The beautiful wood-paneled library in the house was a witness to their intellectual life, and also became an actor in Natascha’s project through the wooden material that covers its walls. The broken branch lying dead on the grass was destined to be cut up by the house gardener and sent to a carpenter to be in turn used as such raw material.
In Natascha’s installation Similar (Ressemblance) the branch became an allegory for a dying person in the retirement house, and for aging people in similar situations. The artist focused on wood as an important factor in the long term within environmental studies, which tend to view lying dead wood as natural carbon storage that after millions of years transforms itself into fossil fuel. Inside the gallery, Natascha reassembled the branch that was previously cut by the gardener into small pieces. It was a painstaking endeavour to make it as similar as possible to its previous original form. She shot two videos of this process: one of the branch lying on the grass being animated in spasmodic movements, and another within the rooms of the retirement house again featuring wood as a live element. In the latter case, it was amplified with sounds (such as moving paintings and a pile of books in the wood-paneled library that cracks and moans). In both videos everything is alive, animated, non-dead, and in need of our attention and care. The activist part of the project was laid bare on a wooden panel in the gallery featuring photos of burnt oil fields in Iraq and the logo of Total, France’s biggest provider of black gold, that was recently fined in a controversial legal case due to its actions in the Oil for Food program. Through the sculpture, videos, and images, empathy was transformed into a magic act of giving life to a seemingly inanimate old and dry branch. The project makes empathy a strategy in environmental activism by connecting local action to global movements, making the preservation of the branch into its center of attention. By so doing, it offers a possibility of how to slow the advance of climate change.
Demonstration Red Lines, at l’Avenue de la Grande armée, Paris, 11 December 2015. Photo: Clémence SeuratLeaving dead wood where it is, viewed through the prism of a long cycle or deep time, is a decisive act connected to the slogan “Leave it in the ground!” This chant was shouted by protesters at the Red Line demonstration held on the last day of COP21 in Paris on December 11, 2015. The local is always in the global: slogans from Beirut’s garbage crisis and Paris’ climate marches could equally be chanted in the Amazon. There deforestation is dramatically altering the delicate metabolic balance of weather patterns as far as the African Sahara, causing droughts in the Middle East that lead to regional wars for resources, both material as well as spiritual. The garbage piling up in Beirut since July 2015; the millions of Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Sudanese, and Nigerian refugees; the atrocities of Daesh; and the economy of petroleum are all part of a cybernetic geopolitical system that operates through a volatile entanglement of climate catastrophe, neoliberal policy, and structural violence. “Amidst this sobering doom and gloom, the necessary work of critique is accompanied by the ever-more urgent work of creation. Accompanying artistic proposals for how to approach such problems,, creative practices across the arts and sciences must come together to address them ever more publicly and in a complex and responsible way. The Anthropocene, more than a call to arms and a banner of eco-awareness, questions the very foundation of our worldly identity: our supposed ‘humanity’. In order to reimagine this humanity, we start with how individuals and communities sense and articulate their world in common.”
 Erica Violet Lee in “Our Home in the World: Care, Reciprocity, and Indigenous Climate Activism. A Conversation with Zoe S. Todd and Erica Violet Lee,” to be published in a series of publications from the project Let’s Talk about the Weather. Art and Ecology in a Time of Crises, Sursock Museum, Beirut, 2016, curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Nora Razian and Ashkan Sepahvand. http://www.sursock.museum/content/lets-talk-about-weather-art-and-ecology-time-crisis
 Razmig Keucheyan, “Division, not consensus, may be the key to fighting climate change,” The Guardian, 5 May 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/05/division-inequality-key-fighting-climate-change
 Matteo Pasquinelli, forthcoming lecture at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, “On the Technosphere of the Anthropocene: The Planetary Computation of Energy and Information into Cyberfossil Capital.”
 Some examples are writings of the anthropologist Michael Taussig, especially his book I Swear I Saw This, published in 2011 by University of Chicago Press, or publications by the philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, such as Penser comme un rat, Paris: Editions Quae, 2009.
 Clare Hemmings on affective solidarity: “I develop the concept of affective solidarity as necessary for sustainable feminist politics of transformation. This approach is proposed as a way of moving away from rooting feminist transformation in the politics of identity and towards modes of engagement that start from the affective dissonance experience can produce.” In “Affective Solidarity: Feminist Reflexivity and Political Transformation,” Feminist Theory, 13 (2), 2012, pp. 147-161. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/45780/
 Curated in 2014, Tales of Empathy consisted of a yearly program of four individual exhibitions by Nika Autor, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Kapwani Kiwanga and Eszter Salamon, at Jeu de Paume and Maison Bernard Anthonioz in Nogent-sur-Marne. In the curatorial statement I wrote that the project is about the notion of empathy as understood in “reflexive artistic research by four women artists and their roles as educators, researchers and activists. The four artists examine the way in which they assign a specific location to the invitation to produce a new work, situation or exhibition—in this case the Jeu de Paume—and through their work embody the power relationships between their own positions, those of the institution, and those of the visitors.”
 These lines are taken from the curatorial statement for the exhibition Let’s Talk about the Weather. Art and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, July-October 2016, Sursock Museum, Beirut. Curatorial team: Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Nora Razian, and Ashkan Sepahvand. http://www.sursock.museum/content/lets-talk-about-weather-art-and-ecology-time-crisis