The Forest as a Field of Mind

From Firenze University Press Journal: Quaderni Culturali IILA

University of Florence
3 min readMay 16, 2023

Ursula Biemann, Artist — Researcher

The environmentalization sweeping through art and academia in the last 15 years has transformed our respective fields of studies in significant ways. In a series of territorial video investigations, I have gone through several stages of reshaping my artistic practice in rela-tion to the decisive shift of focus from a global to a planetary scope, driven by the growing awareness of the sheer magnitude of the environmental and climatic crisis we are facing. While earlier works examined the correlation between the f low of carbon and mineral resources, big capital, and migration, I later turned to create more explicitly environmental works revolving around the larger planetary streams affecting the climate and experimented with new artistic narratives tackling topics that are traditionally of the domain of natural sci-ence. For this, new tools were needed, and new charac-ters had to be invented who could mediate the increas-ingly alarming ecocrisis. Also, perhaps more important-ly, the critique of the devastating conduct by powerful players had to be replaced by propositions that could provide agency. This is the motivation driving my recent video works Forest Law, Forest Mind and Vocal Cognitive Territory, and the collaborative project Devenir Universidad about the co-creation of an Indigenous University in the South of Colombia.


Forest Law addresses the complex entanglement of oil, forest, climate, and geopolitics on a larger plane by bringing indigenous cosmologies and the Rights of Nature into the arena. For Forest Law, I was filming in the oil contaminated zones of Lago Agrio in the North of Ecuador, where Texaco-Chevron left hundreds of leaking oil ponds all over the forest in the 70ies. There, I met an indigenous scientist, Donald Moncayo, who was taking toxic soil and water samples for a chemical lab in Quito. When international journalists visit Lago Agrio to report on the contamination case, Moncayo takes them to the devastated sites and dressed in a white pro-tective suit, makes a forensic performance so they would have something explicit to film. He is enacting a scientific gesture, not in search for data, not a useful ges-ture, but one that simply makes matter expressive. I was intrigued by Donald’s multiple roles as a scientist, envi-ronmental activist, and performer for each of these roles mediate the relationship between the human and Earth on their own terms.I have been thinking about the possible role of art in this paradigm shift apart from generally highlighting the role of art in mediating “environmental” knowledge. Obviously, artistic research should go beyond merely adding another perspective to science. Rather it should help to challenge the separation of these different forms of thinking and knowing. To invent new charismatic fig-ures, retell history and propose bold speculations all aim at planting new seeds in the collective imaginary.

When looking for new figures that could ref lect global currents and that could move us away from the Digger who relentlessly extracts from the Earth, some suggest we should become Gardeners of the Planet. Personally, I come to see the Indigenous Scientist as a vital signifying figure of the 21st century similar to the way that the Worker or the Migrant were pivotal figures in the 20th century around whom the major social trans-formations were built. The Indigenous scientist has the capacity of merging the contradictions of being at once scientific and political actor, studying the natural world while being part of it. Most importantly, this figure stands for a different kind of epistemology that reconnects us to other ways of knowing and understanding the human-nature symbioses. In other words, the scientist as an explorer and important mediator of the contemporary understanding of our planetary ecosystems, embodies some of the most fundamental problems in our mind-nature conception which brought forth the very concept of environment as a direct expression of the modernist separation paradigm. Symbolically, and by all means also in actuality, the Indigenous Scientist plays a leading role in the paradigm shift from an extractivist to a more ecocentric worldview. In various guises, the figure makes its entrance in my videos, some-times as empiricist, other times in poetic or science-fictional appearance. Their role is to activate and perform a relationship to Earth.


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University of Florence

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