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Whether the world be finite, and whether there be more than one world...






Late one afternoon in an underground shopping centre in the city of Montréal, I came across the word ‘nature’ lettered in rainbow neon. Upon crossing the tiled threshold of the establishment I was overcome by the disturbing aroma of rodents, birds and reptiles that have never felt the rays of the sun or breathed the air of the outdoors. I continued deeper into the low-ceilinged, cave-like recesses of the shop where I encountered a collection of sixty-two Siamese fighting fish, each silent and solitary, displayed in otherwise empty, watery cylinders two inches in diameter and methodically arranged to showcase an organized spectrum of colors, spanning from ‘Cambodian Red,’ ‘Super Orange’ and ‘Pineapple Yellow,’ to ‘Butterfly Blue,’ emerald and violet hues. Later I would read that in the wild these typically murky colored fish only saturate when agitated, but that in captivity they’ve been bred to be always vibrant, as though in a constant state of agitation.


…of the elements and the planets… of god, of monsters… of the eclipses of the moon, and of the sun…


What is nature? Where does it begin and end, and are its contours stable over time? What is the nature that is invoked in the fields of science, art, literature, environmental conservation, industry and commerce, and how is its value inscribed and extracted differently in each? What world orders are enacted in these domains and, further still, how do these fields of discourse and representation inform or interfere with one another?







In 1831 a young Charles Darwin was invited to circumnavigate the globe aboard the HMS Beagle, a survey ship commissioned by the British crown to chart the coast of South America. Aboard the ship were also three young Fuegians who had been abducted by the captain and crew of the same HMS Beagle the year previous; one of them, Jemmy Button, a boy of sixteen, was re-named after the object he was “traded” for: a single mother of pearl button. The Fuegians were brought to London, dressed in English attire and circulated in and around high society as curiosities and talismans of the celebrated expedition. Over the course of the next year one would die of small pox while still in England, while the others, having been “civilized,” were now en route with Darwin to return to their native home, Tierra del Fuego, supposedly to serve in their communities
as Christian missionaries and British allies.


…of stars which suddenly appear or of comets… of colors of the sky and of celestial flame… of sudden circles…


During his next five years on the expedition, Darwin amassed an exemplary collection of tropical specimens—dead, fossilized and alive—to be brought back to England; Harriet, one of many Galapagos tortoises stowed on the Beagle, would live on in a botanical garden for 170 years, eventually dying only in 2006. Throughout this time Darwin kept meticulous notes of his observations that would serve as the groundwork for On the Origin of Species and his theory of evolution, which amongst other things still holds nature marvelously accountable today. As a student of post-Darwinian natural sciences the question “why” becomes possible at every turn: why does the bird have radiant plumage? To attract a mate. Why do armies of ants form death spirals: an unfortunate bi-product of an otherwise evolutionarily advantageous adaptation.

How has nature come to be understood as a stable ontological phenomena existing somewhere “out there” beyond the realms of the social, the political and the historical when the discipline of natural history has been so embroiled in colonization, imperialist trade networks, religion and trafficking? Capture, collection, captivity, spectacle… the cabinet of curiosities, the natural history diorama, the exotic animal in the zoo and the possibility of bio-engineering dragons all seem to stand midway between art and science, entertainment and knowledge, such that one might almost be tempted to call this no-man’s-land itself — nature.


Also in 1831, the same year that Darwin embarked on the Beagle, the noted Romantic painter John Constable exhibited his Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows at the Royal Academy of London. In the foreground of the painting, brambles lit with dew frame the return of a peasant from work, while in the distance a storm, presumably passing, hangs over the ominous yet wonderful scene. Like many paintings of its kind, the underlying geometry organizing the image is constructed so as to funnel the viewers gaze to the church, such that they might realize their own metaphysical dimensions through the landscape. Even though Constable sought to create images that were in his own words “legitimate, scientific, and mechanical,” critics were apparently quite appalled by this six-foot paysage calling it by turns theatrical, exaggerated and especially “unnatural.” One even pointed out that, given the meteorological conditions represented by the artist, the rainbow— a symbol of hope and redemption well alive in Montreal today in the midst of COVID 19- was utterly impossible.










…in what places the sea has receded… of cities which have been absorbed by the sea… of lands which have been swallowed up…


On an overcast Saturday morning sitting at our old oak dining table, whose legs were carved with ornate motifs of climbing ivy, a woman with black flowing hair set before me three plastic dishes, a jar of water, several surgical instruments and a large meaty eyeball encased in a shaggy skirt of gristle that clung to the steel tray on which it was presented. Thinking back to this day, I see my clumsy, child-sized hands attempting to still that greasy, over-sized eyeball as I began slicing through its tangled layers of fat and muscle. I make my first incisions into the outer layer of eye, normally transparent but now clouded over in death. “Concentrate.” Cutting along the equator I am careful not to damage the thick and fibrous nerve that sprouts from the organ like a nascent germ striving to break ground. I imagine what might grow if we were to bury it
on the sunny side of the house beside the row of peonies.

Once torn apart, the two half-spheres release a clear jelly-like substance and a pool of water, known by some to be the sources of tears. Thinking back to that coagulated puddle of secretions I am reminded of Aristotle’s theory of sight: the eye, he proposed, emanates a continuous medium of moisture that merges with air to form a “liquid image” in the mind that is experienced as vision… color, shape, line, depth, surface. Emitting this aqueous substance Aristotle’s eye probes its surroundings like a misty tentacle groping a watery world into being.


…on the navigation of the sea, of the rivers… and whether the ocean surrounds the earth… that the earth is the middle of the world…


Still holding the deflated globe in the palm of my hand I watched as the secretions stained my skin a grayish color and soon realized that something else, very black and oily, was also leaking from the eyeball. Reaching into the front portion of the bisected organ I remove a glistening, jewel-like stone and with sticky, blackened fingers, hold it up to my own eye. A spot of light cast by the stone dances frantically on the walls of the sunlit room, attracting the attention of the cat who positions himself with furtive urgency to stalk the flickering apparition. Looking through the transparent gem I see the sky become the ocean and the ocean become the sky as the whole of the world is refracted upside down.


… when and where there are no shadows… where the shadows fall in opposite directions… of daylight in the night…


The ophthalmologist with the flowing hair explained that I was holding a crystalline lens that once focused rays of light onto the retina of a rabbit. Their eyes being similar to our own, rabbits can be used in lieu of human subjects particularly when it would be unethical to use humans, she continued; for example, if one wanted to study the effects of nuclear radiation on vision one couldn’t use humans, which is why in the 1960s they placed rabbits rather than humans at varying distances from small atomic bombs that were detonated by scientists who were trying to understand the effects of nuclear radiation on eyes. The results were to be expected: the rabbits placed 42 miles from the site of the explosion received retinal burns larger than those placed 300 miles away. Thanks to this study, she told me, we now know that the intense light produced
by nuclear bombs can cause temporary or permanent blindness.

I don’t remember if we continued the dissection, but if we had we would not have found the iridescent, blue membranous layer called the tapetum lucidum which lies behind the retina of nocturnal animals. By reflecting light back into the eye for a second time, the tapetum lucidum improves night vision and is responsible for the bright eyeshine seen in deer, cats, dogs, deep sea animals and other creatures who roam the darkness. Being diurnal, rabbits lack this feature, and on the day of the experiments I should say it is thankfully so for one cannot imagine what kind of fantastic eyeshine would have flashed from those eyes as they beheld the infernal and blinding light of the explosions intended as it were for their own private spectacle.


…on showers of milk, blood, iron, wool, flesh and baked tiles… on the sound of trumpets heard in the sky…


Working as part of the avant-garde in post-war Japan, Tetsumi Kudo envisioned an ecology in which humanity, technology and polluted nature merged into a symbiotic whole. In his sculptures from the mid-seventies, primordial and seemingly residual lifeforms are born from the carnal union of batteries, fungi, thermometers, genitalia and stray parts of the human body, and mingle in orgiastic decay such as one might find blossoming on the walls of a Chernobylist theatre. It can be difficult to reconcile the coexistence of horrific, erotic and playful elements in Kudo’s work. His innate sense of humor, use of vibrant color and the satiric pathos of his assemblages seduce attention and empathy at the same time that undercurrents of violence and perversion repel easy appreciation. For many, the grotesque and absurd conglomerations of severed parts of the human body and foreign objects—organic, technological and kitsch—have a distinctly dystopian and macabre tone. But one might also understand Kudo’s synthesis of these elements as a desire for union or reunion, in which humanity and nature merge in harmony and balance. I wonder, can one ever return to what was never let go of? Did such a split ever really happen? In the context of feminist writing on monsters by theorists such as Barbara Creed, Donna Haraway and others, hybrids like Kudo’s become hopeful metaphors for a new world order that rejects notions of categorical purity and human exceptionalism in a garden without origins, somewhere between a dream that’s been forgotten and the nightmare eternally that returns.


…animals born of beings that have not yet been born themselves… of bodies which have a third nature, or of bodies which are animal and vegetable combined…






In the winter of 2018 I attended a black tie event at the New York Public Library hosted by the Berggruen Institute, an independent think-tank based in Los Angles. The event was held in honor of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the recipient of that year’s cash prize of one million dollars. Along with the other artist fellows of the institute, I took my name-tagged place in the great hall as dinner was being served prior to the ceremonies. It was here, in a seat next to NT, a Stanford professor of synthetic biology, that I first encountered the idea of Earth’s “life-well.” Organisms, NT explains, are constrained not only by their environments and the need to reproduce, but also by the lineage of lifeforms that came before them. With the ability to modify biology at the genetic level we are learning that all lifeforms that have ever existed on Earth represent only a snow-flake on the iceberg of possible lifeforms… what if we were able to liberate life’s design from the constraints of lineage and enter a new world of possibilities? This post-Darwinian vision of total freedom from genetic ancestry, which has become entirely plausible thanks to gene editing technologies such as CRISPR, is what NT calls “stepping out of Earth’s life-well.”


… marvelous properties belonging to certain fishes… places where fish will eat from a human hand….places where fish recognize the human voice…


NT is the kind of scientist one rarely comes by these days— he is interested in literature, post-modern feminist scholarship and speaks almost entirely in metaphor. A quick internet search reveals the scope of his achievements and influence within the field of synthetic biology. And yet his dream of stepping out of Earth’s life-well still makes me uneasy to this day. What he sees as a liberation from ancestry I have come to see as a loss of rich connection with extended kinship networks. Is it not humbling and beautiful in the midst of COVID-19 to remember that eight percent of human DNA is of viral origin? Or that microbes outnumber the quantity of human cells composing our bodies by a factor of ten to one, making this ‘thing’ we call human actually mostly something else? Where the human begins and ends has become increasingly ambiguous; these forms of connectedness remind us of the interspecies entanglements that characterize living things at every level.


It is not that I value the ‘natural’ bonds of ancestry and symbiosis over ‘artificially’ reconfigured bonds of genetically designed organisms. Of course the venomous cabbages whose cells produce scorpion poison (modified to be harmless to humans but lethal to pests) are not outside these webs of connection and, in fact, they probably have a lot to teach us about the leaky continuums that hold us all together. But rather than considering lineage as a hinderance from which we must liberate ourselves, what would it mean to look at the ways in which we are bound to each other as something to protect rather than escape from?


…of marvelous births… of monstrous births… of those who have been cut from the womb…


It is ironic that a gene-splicing technology invented 3.5 billion years ago by bacteria (now commonly called CRISPR) has been celebrated as mankind’s ultimate triumph over nature and is expected (or hoped) to herald in some kind of “post-historical” future. In looking back to early naturalists such as Pliny the Elder, whose Naturalis historia is among the earliest encyclopedias in the West as well as one of the very first compendiums of natural phenomena, one finds that his category of ‘nature’ maps quite differently onto the world than the one we commonly operate with today. In fact humans are an integral part of his vision of nature, their presence weaving in and out of chapters on plants, animals and the climate at times seemingly arbitrarily. Human technologies and culture are also discussed at great length in Pliny’s account as these things were not considered separate from nature. Indeed, the idea of two mutually exclusive and antithetical realms composed of nature on the one side and culture on the other is simply not present. Pliny’s general approach to categorization defies our modern conception of how the world is ordered—reminding us that nature is not something that exists “out there,” its secrets waiting to be revealed, but rather it is in fact historical and subject to change. This is not to say that it is only a construction of art and science, rather it seems to exist in multiple, paradoxical forms at once as some kind of a continuum between so-called ‘reality’ and so-called ‘constructedness.’


In the midst of an on-going ecological collapse I wonder what new kind of nature is coming into view today, and how are the discourses and interests of environmental conservation, activism, capitalism, settlement and biotechnology among others yet again actively reformulating this Protean figure? How can we “save” what we can’t even define or point to?  



…of the dimensions of the world… of stones that have fallen from the clouds, and of the rainbow…



















This essay was written as a companion piece to the two-channel video, That the Earth is the Middle of the World (2020). The italicized phrases were adapted from the table of contents of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia.