Petro-Subjectivity: An Interview with Brett Bloom (part two)
Recently, I sat down with Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom (partners and long time collaborators under the projects Let’s ReMake and Mythological Quarter) via Skype to discuss their two recent books, An Edge Effect: Art & Ecology in the Nordic Landscape and Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self. In this two-part interview, we discuss a range of topics that address art and life in Anthropocene.
Brett Bloom is an artist, writer, and organizer. He is a member of the art group Temporary Services. Ecological and social justice issues feature in much of Bloom’s work. Recent efforts include his book: Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self (Breakdown Break Down Press 2015). Bloom has organized intensive workshops and camps where people come together to practice and inhabit post-oil subjectivities in preparation for climate breakdown and collapse. Bloom is currently based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
Sarrita Hunn: I understand that your recent book, Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self, exists at least somewhat in relationship to the Break Down Breakdown workshops you (co)organized last summer. I was wondering if you could start by explaining what that is and what that involved.
Brett Bloom: The book is used during these gatherings I have been organizing under the name Break Down Breakdown. There were two last summer and there are two coming up this summer in rural Wisconsin and rural Finland. The Petro-Subjectivity book tries to articulate this situation that we are in where the use of fossil fuels, or cheap energy (this thing that produces convenience or ease in our lives) is so pervasive, so omnipresent, that it shapes the very metaphors we use to describe the world. So the very neural pathways and metaphorical structures that we take as truth, as bedrock, as primary ways of articulating the world, are based on these relationships that are derived from the use of oil – and the way that they propel us through space, the way that they make food for use, the way that they transmit information to us.
So, part of my concern is that there seems to be these tremendous limits to how we’re thinking of the future in terms mitigating climate breakdown—and I use the term breakdown instead of change because it is a breakdown in systems, which are systems that we have evolved into over millennia that are collapsing, are imploding, so to talk about it as change is confusing because things are always changing with the weather, with the climate, with the landmass, with river trajectories, etc. So, the kind of things that we have been collectively envisioning for the future repeat the logic of petroleum thinking, petroleum subjectivities, ways of relating to the world around us, to materials we use, to each other, etc.
Part of trying to articulate that is to have a base on which we can begin to pick apart this way of thinking, this way of being, this metaphorical structure within our language that replicates this relationships—[to ask] what does it mean and what does it look to articulate it, but also to build these gatherings that make an opportunity for people to experience time and place, community, food, a whole range of things, in another way than this petroleum-based way of thinking? It’s what I have been calling a Deep Map; a Deep Map of place and self, where you are layering up multiple narratives of a place and your presence in it. Sometimes they are contradictory, sometimes they are mutually beneficial, but you layer up ways of understanding a site. You talk about it in terms of its geological formations. You talk about it in terms of its historical land use. You talk about it in terms of your embodied experiences of that landscape through exercises of awareness, of paying attention to the place, etc. These gatherings call our attention to petro-subjectivity and they also get us in a place where we practice what it might mean to slowly dismantle this petro-subjectivity—to try and get this petroleum-based way of thinking out of our lives. It’s with the hope (and it’s been mainly with artists so far, but that will shift in the near future) of getting artists to think critically about this and how it impacts their work and the kinds of things that they pay attention to in their work, and try to think collectively on how we make culture that begins to generate other visions of the future – rather than we have to make solar panels and windmills and eat organic food. All these things sound very nice, but when you look at how resource intensive they are and the kinds of wastes that they produce and the kind of ways that they externalize violence (they destroy landscapes), you realize it’s really the same kind of thinking. So, what are other ways of thinking about the future? Talking about the future? Talking about energy use, land use, food consumption, etc.? That’s some of the thinking behind these gatherings and behind this publication—which is the first in a series of several publications that introduce similar ideas and open up ways of thinking beyond our current situation.
One book that I think we will work on with an Austrian artist is on deep time and deep futures, and situating ourselves among much longer geological processes—looking at and finding ways to think about our impact on this planet—in wholly other terms and other time frames. There will be a book on articulating more fully this process of Deep Mapping and how you can apply this as a methodology. There will probably be another publication on horse power. There are a lot of people talking about a return to horses as a way to think about energy descent, degrowth, moving away from fossil fuels use; it is a technology that is reasonable and can help us maintain a lifestyle that isn’t brutal and miserable.
SH: Wow. (laughs) One of the things that you were talking about audience made me think back to the discussion I was having with Bonnie – one of the questions, or you could even say challenges, of an artistic practice or cultural practice, is thinking about dissemination. How do [these efforts] affect society at large? One of the things that we talked about is related to this idea of deep time, but Bonnie also brought up some points about different kinds of audiences and contexts. Specifically, it was interesting to me that you brought that you have been working primarily with artists but that is going to change over time. Could talk a little more about that?
BB: Yeah. Well, the workshops have had this private component with a very intensive closed process for training people and those people have mainly been artists and environmentalists so far. With the camps there is also a public component, which invites local folks in to hear speakers talk about land rights, spirituality and place, soil health—so you get very different people in the room and the conversations start overlapping and your start building a culture and a forum for these kinds of things to be in proximity to each other—artists sitting talking with scientists, talking with theologians about soil, about culture. You immediately start getting into a really different kind of conversation, but each person, each perspective, is having an impact and you are having a common conversation, and I think that it is really critical in having these forums and these structures, which will continue.
We had (in the workshop we organized in Scotland) this idea of a permanent camp—this kind of structure that opens and closes and becomes a kind of public forum for a lot of ideas. We are nowhere near doing anything like that, but the idea is to find ways to talk across speciality. In my own practice as an artist, since the very beginning with my work with Temporary Services, we sought to find a way to explain our work to anyone we come across. We worked directly in public places where we had to find the language that gives access to those ideas so that most people can see them and feel comfortable with them and do not feel off-put by jargon, by power, by whatever. So, this has been an ongoing concern for over twenty years and it is quite fluid in these public presentations.
In London, the biggest attendance at one of the public events I organized was with the ambassador from Bolivia [to the UK] who came and spoke about the constitution of Bolivia, which grants the landscape (and the things within it) the rights to exist and for their processes to unfold. It was amazing. You really had a mix of folks who came out for that. It was mainly folks attending the festival (that this workshop was a part of), but there were people from the public coming and wanting to hear—and this is certainly an interesting situation to throw the ambassador into—to have to talk about it in terms of the cultural impact that it could have in a place like London. Many in the audience were deeply sympathetic and wanting to understand how you could bring this to western consciousness—this ancient land ethic, this intact land ethic —and how it could be a way to counteract capitalist relationships to land and to resource use. And this one narrative that is huge, too—the rights of nature—and paying attention, and supporting this work of indigenous folks and this knowledge that is still intact. We have cut it off in the West. In the ideology of modernization it is sort of present, but very minimal compared to places like Ecuador and Bolivia and Brazil where there are still very strong and powerful indigenous voices effecting policy on a national level. These are things that we wanted to talk about that immediately transcends art. It’s really about the future of the globe. So, I think that there are really some basic, general things you can talk about and infuse into these gatherings. These have been organized to be wide open and it’s good to have artists sitting in the room and thinking about how they too could expand their practice, expand their language, address different audiences.
SH: Towards the end of the book you talk about your own approaches to organizing small group workshops and Bonnie also mentioned to me your increased investment in working with Deep Listening. What is the role of that within the workshop context? – with the idea (again) that we are talking about art and audiences and the opportunities that there are to have these kinds of interactions.
BB: I am in the process of getting certified as a Deep Listener. It’s a year long training process led by Pauline Oliveros, two other instructors and a team of certified deep listeners. But Deep Listening is one among many very simple ways of using directed (or direct) embodied experience to access a range of capacities to feel, to sense, to interpret, to transcend, the place you are sitting in. Deep Listening is interesting because it is an amalgamation of all these practices pulled together over forty years – some pulling from eastern religion and meditation practices, some pulling from music composition and sound awareness, some pulling from buddhism, etc. It is pulling from these exercises that give this kind of attentiveness and care and paying attention that can be directed in an infinite number of ways. It’s pretty mind blowing. One example—to sit in a room with complete strangers in northeast Scotland where the culture of the people are quite reserved and not very open to share their feelings in public—people not trusting each other on a social level to engage, but then going through this Deep Listening process where we are listening to our heartbeats, registering our heartbeats and making them public without words by tapping them out, and all of sudden this intense communal process happens that no one can really explain, but they know that they have been a part of something —their bodies, their hearts and their rhythms within themselves are participating in something. It is quite transformative and it opens up the capacity to be social and breaks through this uptight oppressive social atmosphere.
All of our learning is embodied—meaning that when we have to learn something it goes into our neural networks, it forms our neural networks and then we process it. But more often or not, if you agree (as I have been reading a lot of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and their work on this) about how neural networks form through the patterning that metaphorical structures provide in how we talk about the world; metaphorical structures can be there first and help you form your networks, your neural pathways. So, in a way, sometimes there are these primary ideological structures through which your neural pathways right themselves. Directly embodied experience is a way to take the filters off, to insist on this hugely open experience. This happens every time a very simple Deep Listening situation is done where a group is all listening to the same exact things, everyone has been given the same instructions, those instructions are wide open, and what you end up hearing is radically different from what everyone else hears because the way in which you listen. So Deep Listening teaches us that we have these broad capacities and this can be a tool for dismantling something like petro-subjectivity.
There are other forms of direct embodied learning that the camps use. Deep Listening is one that I am particularly drawn to and I want to get trained in and to get better at it, but we bring other transcendental (i.e. very directly transcendental where you can just step into these things without any belief and if they work for you, or if they don’t work for you, you haven’t lost anything) excercises in these camps that are very immersive experiences where you’re doing Deep Listening, but then you’re doing animal communication or plant empathy, or something similar with rocks and entire landscapes. You’re getting whisked and heat balanced in a sauna in this ancient Baltic tradition where the experience is pummeled into your body with branches and heat…you are just laying there doing nothing and you end up having this transcendental experience. It’s very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t gone through it. You really just have to try it. The heat and the massage and the sensory overload and the relaxation push you over into this other place of reflection and awareness, and it is immediate. You don’t have to have organized religion for it. I am very interested in these things, and combining these things, and getting people together, and doing these things together, and talking about it, but also talking about our feelings and our fears about climate breakdown, climate change, the future— talking about organizing, about what we can do, talking about what kinds of cultural forms we can make as artists and people who do this all the time—to address these tremendously huge problems that only seem to be on the increase.
SH: One of the other things that I was talking with Bonnie about was a Felix Guattari essay, “The Three Ecologies,” where he talks about re-organizing things through increased subjectivities. When you are talking about the workshops, it sounds like that – getting in touch with your actual, personal experience, in a very subjective way.
BB: Yeah. I think this work on subjectivities is huge and there’s so many ways to come at it. That essay is one. I mean, there are so many subjectivities we have to work through. We have to de-colonize our subjectivities. We have to take petroleum out of them. We have to queer them. They must be anti-racist and feminist. We have all these things that we have to work on, but these things start to open up different social formations, different social relationships and so, by focusing on something like petro-subjectivity, it does precisely that. It sensitizes you to all these relationships and all these dependencies and the intrusion of this into your sense of self. When you start paying attention to it, it’s kind of overwhelming. So, I think this work on subjectivities is fascinating and it is a really powerful place for art to be dealing with things. I think that a lot of our art does this anyway, maybe self-consciously. Or maybe the stuff that is most powerful, or that opens up new ways of thinking for us, is somehow doing this. You could make an art history based on that.
Read the first part of this interview: An Edge Effect: An Interview with Bonnie Fortune (part one).
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