“Towards Life”

Chus Martínez

Martine Aballéa, Neige végétale, 2001. Embroidery, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Dilecta, Paris. © Bruno Scotti.

July 8, 2022

Meta is a collaboration between art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Fondation Pernod Ricard, which reflects on the relationship between artists and writers. In her essay on the work of Martine Aballéa for Textwork, Chus Martínez considered how its new “ways of sensing” the world might suggest new ways of acting within it. This curiosity about how other consciousnesses—human and nonhuman—construct their surroundings also characterizes Martínez’s work as artistic director of TBA21–Academy’s Ocean Space in Venice, which is dedicated to improving our understanding of the oceans through art, and as director of the Art Institute at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel.1 This conversation picks up threads from that text, ranging from what it means to think of art as a living being to why she retains “the highest respect for joy.”

art-agenda: You write beautifully of how reality is constructed by our sensory faculties: so the world as inhabited by a human does not only look different but is different to the world inhabited by, to take your example, a turtle. How can art help us to reconstruct the world?

Chus Martínez: I am always fascinated by how we fantasize: how fantasy allows the human to speculate different futures, but also reveals our desires to dominate. For example, we are keen on imagining how we might transfer certain traits—human intelligence and language—to programmed machines. But in the same dream, machines gain independence, take over, and misuse the power we pass on to them in order to destroy us. This fantasy rehearses our will to dominate and reveals our fear of another colonizer, one even more powerful and destructive than ourselves. Artificial intelligence is possessed by these fantasies. For this reason, I consider the exercise of producing different fantasies a very necessary political activity. Fiction is different than fantasy and—more than ever—we need both.

The pandemic has revealed that disciplines based exclusively on fact and scientific data are coming, in their modern sense, to an end. Millions of people decided against the vaccine, for example, showing that trust cannot rely only on scientific proofs. Anxiety, and all the paranoias that grow in a hyper-sensitized social body, produces fantasies. And the only way to counteract them is to channel them through other fantasies. I believe it is completely possible to imagine a technology and a science that is diverse and also attentive to how other species see and perceive. Imagine machines that could menstruate, or with sensorial devices mimicking the organs of animals rather than humans.

aa: So fantasy, or imagination, is fundamental to any political commitment. It allows us to propose different worlds, but it can also bring us closer to the worlds inhabited by others.

CM: Fantasy is a technology that allows us to come closer to worlds we can easily visualize but cannot yet realize. Fiction allows for the transfer of emotion from the individual to the collective. If we combine these two technologies, we have a chance to create a world in which hybrid forms of organization can emerge. Right now, for example, we are still in a first phase, in which communities and groups claim—rightly—their rights and their uniqueness, but in order to defend themselves and their integrity. This defense is painful but necessary after centuries of abuse and oppression. But I’m hopeful for a future in which we are able to form complex, solid, and empathic alliances between groups that may not share the same traits, experiences, or even species.

Critical theory or political philosophy helped us to do this in the past, and yet, even if I am a great lover of both, these disciplines, in their current forms, no longer serve the common good. That’s why I am passionate about the role of art and artists. I see art as a substance that has, for centuries, been gathering the wisdom that we now need: an intelligence that is not programmed but shared. Art knows that the force of co-creation, along with fantasy and fiction, allows us to experience freedom. Art interacts with inherited systems and their deep problems, and yet it also re-sensitizes materials. This is to move away from objects and towards life.

aa: You propose that art is not only alive but “sentient.” In the same text you say that language is “less sentient,” a “mythology.” I’m curious about that distinction.

CM: Lately, I have come to think that Western art has—in this particular moment in time—used language as the “big data” of art. Language as something to rely on, something to trust, something that conceptualizes life in a way that frees art from that burden. Yet art can do something as bold as placing the body at the core of its practice. How beautiful this is! What does it mean to have not only matter but bodies inside the practice of art? Science is motivated mainly by the human aspiration to be the only species to make decisions. We create instruments of observation and prediction ostensibly for the sake of preservation, but really to be able to control and make decisions on behalf of all other species and environments. By introducing the body, we introduce a co-creator. One that follows logics and paths that are different from the abstractions that we superimpose on the world.

From cybernetics to performance, the body appeared to create a real fantasy: the body as a machine that cannot be entirely programmed by us. A body of cells connecting with other cells. All of a sudden art revealed that we never thought about the agency of other forms of life and we never designed systems for co-creating the future with them. This is just one example of how I think new epistemological parameters have been introduced through experience. Parameters that suggest, in a positive way, how we might come near to other things without destroying or extracting them. To say that nature should have autonomy might sound like a fantasy movie where the ocean talks and the clams dance. But this fantasy contains the key for a different form of governance, and a law-writing that imagines the rights of non-embodied entities.

aa: This breaking down conventional categories of thought and being extends to describing art history as a “multi-celled organism able to pass signals and traits” through inherited characteristics and mutations. Do you think of art as constantly evolving?

CM: Yes: I imagine art as an imaginative, evolutive substance capable of observing both itself and life. An evolution that made art acquire morphic traits so that it can take, ahead of time, the form our time requires. Like stem cells, art is able to join the organ that the body currently needs. As in a bird flock, art is the intelligence that allows us to pirouette together in the skies, even if we can’t perform such moves on our own. Art activates the collective intelligence present in complex organizational systems. It’s difficult to reduce this to exhibition-making or the market. Art should—and hopefully will—spread in way that allows an absorption and an understanding of the millions of transitions necessary to reach equality and freedom. This sounds idealistic: I would say it is a fantasy we need to live in joy. Joy is also an aspiration of art. I have the highest respect for joy.

aa: That analogy to morphic traits suggests that every work of art is less a discrete object than an event, linked backwards and forwards to others. How does this way of thinking change your relationship to exhibition-making?

CM: The first time I understood that exhibition-making was still too tamed by its presentation was during my work as head of the curatorial office for Documenta 13. During the years of research that took place before the exhibition, I often encountered the Renaissance garden-experience as a model for co-existence-beyond-stiffness. I remember being annoyed that this stuck in people’s minds instead of some greater and wilder imagination. And yet, in retrospect, the use of the garden and the use of rhythm during this Documenta probably resonated with that Renaissance fantasy in the minds of many. After that, I was so interested in exhibition-making that I moved to an art school. At first, many thought that I was abandoning the practice—it’s an illness of our system to presume that there is a staircase that leads directly to museums—but my motivation was to avoid the office and come closer to the ground.

As in agriculture, where one must learn from the seeds and the plagues that affect the fields, this was my way of taking an opportunity to learn again. It is interesting to see that the big international exhibitions are still conceived under the orders of presentation or the nostalgias of process-experiencing, rather than with the desire to juxtapose very different worlds. I imagine an exhibition of machines with turtle-eye cameras and deep-learning devices talking to whales, I imagine an exhibition reimaging what it means to be social, I imagine an exhibition proposing fantasies of political organizations that grant rights and embody the values of co-creation. I imagine children. I must confess that thinking of art makes me think of two communities I am passionate about: those who do not read—like my mother—and children. Yes, my ideas about exhibitions have changed, and what I mean is that all my aspirations and hopes towards them have grown.


These ideas were further explored in e-flux journal 112, titled “the ocean” and edited by Martínez with Julieta Aranda.

Nature & Ecology
Climate change, Environment

Chus Martínez is Head of the Institute Art Gender Nature of the Basel Academy of Art and Design FHNW and Associate Curator of the Ocean Space, Venice, a collaborative platform spearheaded by TBA21–Academy, as well as Curator at Large at the Vuslat Foundation in Istanbul. She is a board member of CIMAM (International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art) and serves on the advisory boards of numerous international art institutions, including Castello di Rivoli, Turin; de Appel, Amsterdam; and Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin.

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July 8, 2022

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