Judith Butler, feminist philosopher and radical theorist, spoke in Venice at Palazzo Grassi on May 11th about art and activism. Regarding that speech, whose text was previewed by this newspaper, we asked her some questions about the repression faced by environmental movements in Italy, as well as in Germany and France.
In Italy, as in Germany, environmentalists are under trial and risk very serious sentences. In the case of Ultima Generazione, activists simulate damaging works of art in order to highlight the contradiction that the destruction of a painting or monument terrifies us, while the destruction of the planet Earth leaves us indifferent. Is it this contradiction that triggers judicial repression?
We have many reasons to worry when environmental activists who seek to bring media attention to climate destruction are branded as domestic terrorists or subject to prison sentences and harsh fines. The category of domestic terrorist continues to expand under a number of “democratic” countries justifying state surveillance and control. Even acts of assembly, fundamental to any democratic society, are characterized as threats to security or public health. So we should oppose these expanding forms of repressive and disciplinary forms of state power.
Linguist Vera Gheno has pointed out that many politicians and several newspapers have dubbed activists “eco-vandals.” She argues that this term evokes the barbarian invasions, thus reactivating the frame of a wild invasion against sacred soil. Moreover, Gennaro Sangiuliano, the Minister of Culture in the Meloni government, invoked a special law against environmental actions and stated that anyone who targets monuments attacks the homeland and should be considered a traitor to the nation. What is the relationship between nationalism and climate denial?
Of course, there are forms of nationalism that object to any threat to museums or their art holdings as an attack on the patria. This happens in France as well, as if eco activists are thrusting a knife into the patriarchal heart of the nation. At the same time, it is important to distinguish between the art we need to understand climate destruction and fight denialism, and the art that comes to represent the nation-state and its nationalism. It is important as well to distinguish between the national or state museums that make the case for the patria, the patrimony and the patriarchy and those art spaces where radical thought is taking place. The problem is not art. In fact, art is probably part of the solution to the extent that it has the power to contest denialism and compel us to think about the vanishing future.
These activists are often mocked for their apocalyptic messages, but they are slowly raising awareness in the collective consciousness. We are dealing with a sort of millenarianism in reverse: While millenarian narratives predict that only a few chosen ones who have seen the light will be saved, here the end of the world is announced to save the masses.
Perhaps what is needed is to amplify that message through more public debate and longer forms of reflection and practices of restructuring at several levels of society. Some climate activism depends on the power of the moment. But if the moment belongs to the media cycle, it is forgotten too soon. How do we take that crucial message and compel every institution to face the destruction and to make a plan. How, in other words, does the transient shock of some climate activism get transformed into vital, long-range political change?
Finally, in your reflections on “environment, art and politics,” you argue that the discussion on the relationship between art and life needs public spaces where “imminent destruction” can be discussed, as a form of mourning. Is this the missing step in order to make the actions we are talking about fully “political”?
All of us who are against denial have at some point to answer the question, what is denial? That is, how is it formed and sustained, and in whose interests is it reproduced?
Climate denialism is something that everyone engages in to some degree but the point is to find practices that allow all the destruction to stop and regeneration to begin. We can barely afford the recognition of the loss we are facing, the loss that we are making. To face it would be to the loss of life and the loss of futurity, and how does anyone grieve such a loss? We turn away from that question too soon. So what practices, what art practices can make us stay with what we have lost, are losing, and will lose so that grieving gives rise to resistance and to a politics for the living.
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