It has been almost five years since the first Afterall editorial meeting was conducted in Toronto, Canada, which in turn instigated a roundtable and subsequent symposium on the question of the ‘Global Indigenous?’. Since that time, the art world’s discourse has been supercharged with two concerns: a cyclical resurgence of identity politics and an acute assessment of the environmental crisis. To list the global events and movements that have pierced any sense of normalcy in the last five years would feel both banal, given the ubiquity of such lists, and dislocating, given the speed of these developments. We exist in a state of permanent urgency that risks giving way to burnout. At the time of writing (early March 2020), a novel virus is disrupting – on a truly global and unprecedented scale – political orders, economic growth and public life. In the emerging emergency, perhaps there arises a space for an unlikely solidarity where we pause and assess the most basic issues – not as abstract issues, but existentially touching ones – as biennials are postponed, exhibitions emptied, travel plans suspended and lectures cancelled. These disruptions are merely the beginning for a reality that will affect everyone, much like the ecological crisis but with a speed that propels a different politics. A contemporary world predicated on hyper-exchange is facing a quick reality check. The precarity of our global logistical chains asks us to consider what in our exchanges is really necessary, what is ‘healthy’? What freedoms are we willing to surrender for the greater good? All of this, instigated by a microscopic cross-over from non-human to human via the act of eating, has subsequently exploded into speculative behaviour of fear. How will we weather the test to our values in such states of exemption, and will we realise how deeply inconsistent and superficial our beliefs are on such issues, say, as migration – in all its forms?
While the nebulous theme for this issue revolves around exchange, say in the intersubjective performances of Sonia Boyce and siren eun young jung, the most continuous thread winding through it follows the clash between different communities’ use of territory – clashes over the sanctity of forests, the flow of rivers or the surrounding sea. The issue opens with a conversation between Amar Kanwar and Afterall editor Ute Meta Bauer with Anca Rujoiu, reflecting on Kanwar’s decade-long project The Sovereign Forest (2012–ongoing), a collaborative project in India with Sudhir Pattnaik/Samadrusti and Sherna Dastur that has sustained a creative look at the intersection of ‘crime, politics, human rights and ecology’. Similar concerns are continued in Macarena Gómez-Barris’s text on the installation Forest Law (2014) by Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares, which contextualises the work alongside other South American works confronting ‘frontier capitalism’, while referencing Michel Serres’s seminal The Natural Contract (1990), a text that proposes ‘the emergence of nature as a social, legal and ethical agent, challenging and complementing Rousseau’s idea of the social contract’. Flowing through these forests, great tributaries connect the most remote communities to the rest of the world. The question of who owns and has the right to land is already thorny enough, but the flow of water presents even more complicated conflicts. In writing about Carolina Caycedo’s ongoing project Be Dammed, Lisa Blackmore points out the fact that two thirds of the earth’s rivers are hydro-engineered, and that our constructed dams are such megaprojects they have tilted the rotation of the planet. Blackmore continues by drawing on the philosophy of food sovereigntist Vandana Shiva, who has argued for ‘“ecological democracy”, where all life, not just human life, has its rightful share in the planet’s water’. Echoing Forest Law’s argument for a forest to have inherent rights based on cosmological foundations, New Zealand has relatively recently (after 140 years of litigation) given a river the legal status of personhood, arguing the waterway is ancestral kin to a local Māori tribe. Providing a detailed historical account, Mercedes Vicente writes about Darcy Lange’s Māori Land Project filmed in the 1970s, tracking it as an early case study of an artist’s well-intentioned engagement with indigenous resistance – albeit with methodological failures and limitations, as the project remained beholden to a colonial artworld infrastructure. The story is nothing new; art and activism since the 1960s have often found themselves to be bedfellows for better or for worse, depending on one’s priorities. Danielle Child’s essay on ‘artistic economies’ considers three contemporary art projects, activist in intention, that attempt to engage a public outside of the artworld infrastructure while commandeering the resources of the art world. In doing so, she insightfully cautions us that since the 1990s the persona of the artist has been co-opted by neoliberal management as a paragon of the ‘unalienated’ precarious labourer. She points out the importance of understanding the intentions and processes behind this co-optation, as much as the career opportunities it has brought for artists. Continuing our more recent practice of commissioning an artist to create an intervention for the journal, this issue includes a recipe by the collective Cooking Sections. Growing out of their project The Empire Remains Shop (2016–ongoing), which highlights the colonial legacy of our eating habits, their more recent project Climavore (2015–ongoing), proposes a dietary practice of eating that actually helps climate problems – an important echo impossible to separate from colonial violence. In reflecting on their pop-up restaurant among the tidal pools of the Isle of Skye, May Rosenthal Sloan points out: ‘It is no coincidence that the people suffering most today from the effects of climate change are the same people who suffered most from colonial projects – individuals with little financial means, people of colour and indigenous communities are disproportionately affected’. The two concerns mentioned at the beginning of this text, colonialism and environmentalism, are more and more being acknowledged as inseparable.
In closing, I acknowledge that the issues addressed individually in these pages remain just as present in the place from which I draft this foreword, the next place where the editorial team returns once again to craft a new issue. The rather young, modern nation state of Canada –forged out of the extraction of natural resources and the construction of epic infrastructure – is an apt site for the linked themes of the issue: extractivism and modes of exchange. A pause has been placed on the construction of oil and gas pipelines due to indigenous protests manifesting as blockades, their actions reducing construction, petrochemical flow, commodity exchange and investment across the country. Politicians and spokesperson on both sides are carefully trying to find a solution among the heated agendas from all angles – even beyond their own constituents. A solution is far from easy to see when attempting to account for a host of factors: traditional indigenous claims and their heterogenous positions within their communities, tyranny of the majority, constitutional rights, rule of law, economic survival, shareholder interests, international ecological agencies, and of course the most basic, the community vis-à-vis the individual. Hopefully, the artworks and texts in this volume contribute to a greater understanding of, and inspiration to engage with, these issues faced both at home and globally, for if anything has been illustrated in the last few months of a pandemic outbreak, it is that such concerns cannot be considered only at a distance, nor can they in isolation.