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Broken Earthrise: On the Borders of Being. A talk with Timothy Morton

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Reflections on the workshop “Art, Philosophy & Ecology” with Timothy Morton


We are in Paris, at Bétonsalon - Centre d’art et de recherche, an experimental space for art and research that confronts and rethinks the standardized forms of the creation, classification and distribution of knowledge. Although Timothy Morton is a self-proclaimed zombie—in constant limbo between life and death—who rejects the existence of the present, he somehow managed to be present at the workshop “Art, Philosophy & Ecology”. The seminar and workshop was a part of Bétonsalon’s public program Dark Series in connection with their latest exhibition “Co-Workers: Beyond Disaster” curated by Mélanie Bouteloup and Garance Malivel.  


The workshop takes place in the exhibition space in-between objects that encounter being in alternative ways: ants are crawling around in a box of hydrous calcium sulfate, reminiscent of an extraterrestrial landscape; small robots navigate through the room, their movements constituted by an algorithm; extracts from Vilém Flusser’s book Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, where a vampire squid gives an analysis of human beings. All of the objects are echoing Flusser’s point: all entities are our co-beings. To be able to encounter the ecological crisis and envision the world beyond, the co-workers must work—and play—together.


Eternal darkness is upon us. Timothy Morton argued in his lecture that to confront the ecological crisis we must rethink disaster and make a catastrophe out of it. When we describe the ecological crisis, we seem to be stuck in disaster mode. A disaster is something you witness from the outside, you are not inside it—thus you are not affected. There is no aesthetic space and no beyond. Ecological disaster is in fact an oxymoron. According to Morton, this mode of thinking is the most unhelpful to confront the crisis. Disasters have evolved inside a monotheistic understanding of being and Morton proposes that by turning a disaster into a catastrophe it would permit an ecological ontology that recognizes the world beyond humans. In a catastrophe—you are inside. It happens to you, it has an aesthetic space and it has a beyond. Morton states that ecological awareness is to (re)work the catastrophe by acknowledging the world without us. We must realize that at this particular moment we are always already without ourselves.


At the workshop Morton addressed in particular how art can be ecological. Could Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing’s Ice Watch, the twelve ice blocks that melted away from 3 to 12 December 2015 during COP21, enact real change? As Morton claimed, for art to be ecological—it needs to stop being PR for the ecology. Through art, or design, humans can acknowledge what was there all along. We have always been ecological. Both thinking and art have the capacity to put into work the ecological ontology that acknowledge that being is a broken play: Morton’s analysis of the ontological status of objects leads him to the conclusion that what distinguishes an entity is its weakness. Before encountering an entity, it is already broken. Furthermore, Morten opened up for a metaphysical concept of play. Ecology, then, is an eternal twisted and curved catastrophe that allows a weird play between ontological broken entities. The ecological present is a tremendous tragedy, and yet, in the darkest of tragedies there is a self-contained ironic comedy. As Morton argued, the ecological future is beyond disaster, where we allow for the spaces of tragedies to smile. Only through play, will we start crying for real. Serious playfulness is the key to go beyond the catastrophe. That is how art and design can be ecological. As Timothy Morton concluded, to encounter the catastrophe we need to reboot our fantasy and really find something different inside the fright.


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On Christmas Eve 1968 astronaut William Anders took the iconic Earthrise photograph. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, and the mission was an exploration of the Moon. Humankind entered uncharted territories went beyond human borders. However, although beyond the human edge the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.


Critics of Speculative Realism have argued that there is no point in trying to break the ontological boundaries that encapsulate human perspective, because you cannot break them. Although Timothy Morton claims that objects are “responsible for the next moment in human history and thinking”[1], the critic’s arguments do indeed make sense. As Peter Wolfendale ironically envisions: “The first APA conference panel composed entirely of inanimate objects is held in 2023, to much applause. The ensuing audience discussion unanimously agrees that the contribution of a small half-eaten pot of jam […] is the highlight of the whole event.”[2] Will objects be intelligible “beneath the Heideggerian U-boat, [which] was already traveling at a profound ontological depth”[3]? I would claim that the answer to this question is that it does not matter. In broken entities such as Paris, Bétonsalon, Morton’s lectures, COP21, the movie Interstellar, catastrophes and in Coca Cola we discover something that was not necessarily a part of the initial exploration. Onboard a manned spacecraft we travelled the ontological depths, further beyond the human edge and ended up discovering us. An exploration of withdrawn objects—or hyperobjects—gives humankind a new perspective of life on Earth. Only by acknowledging that all entities are people, all people are things, can we turn towards earth and really discover the weird entity human beings. In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the NASA pilot Cooper travels beyond outer space. Beyond the imaginable, he enters a black hole only to discover that the alien forces working in the world is in fact ourselves.


COOPER: Don’t you get it, yet, Tars? “They” aren’t “beings”… they’re us… trying to help… just like I tried to help Murph.
TARS (over radio): People didn’t build this tesseract..
COOPER: Not yet… but one day. Not you and me but people, people who’ve evolved beyond the four dimensions we know…


To go beyond is to be in your own living room and discover that alien objects are earthlings, yet in a weird dimension. Timothy Morton’s workshop at the Bétonsalon was a dystopian exploration on the borders of being. What we saw, then, when we turned around and witnessed the earthrise from outer space, was that the earthrise was broken. The disaster turned into a catastrophe. Ecological ontology reveals something that was there all along, that we are always already dead.

1. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects : Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 201

2. Peter Wolfendale, Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes (Urbanomic, 2014), 392

3. Morton, Hyperobjects, 14

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