Auguries & Entanglements: Observing, Reflecting, Envisioning

Marcela Szwarc

Drawing of several people struggling to climb upon a rock, with flood waters closing in around them. 4 children sit on the rock next to a tiger, with its babies underneath. Sea gulls hover in the darkened background.
The Deluge, Gustave Dorè’s frontispiece for his 1866 illustrated edition of the Holy Bible.

1. Observing

How can I write about the future, without first naming my anxiety?

Sometimes I feel that it’s too much to try and relate to everything going on in the world—the onslaught of information causes my systems to override. I no longer read the climate reports. I don’t think I’m too sensitive, but I do think that I’m reacting appropriately to conflicting sources of information. It seems more regularly now that climate journalism is fueling fears of inevitable societal collapse, oscillating between narratives of doomism and vague optimism in techno-determinism. I do not need more reminders of what is at stake. I need to remind myself that even journalists have biases within their tone, especially around climate-related issues.​*​

I must admit that I’m hard on myself about my worry, my rage, my grief, and the two-and-a-half years of pandemic isolation have created a collective sense of alienation that makes it difficult to visualize a path forward with my art, or my activism. But grief can also serve as information. It is not an unreasonable way of reacting to the circumstances; on the contrary, it is one path to understanding our shared responsibility of living and dying on planet earth.​†​ 

I often rely on science fiction for visual metaphors, and if I were to categorize the present, I would say that we are already living in dystopia. The irony of dystopia is that it is self-fulfilling; it is a story that affirms its own existence. 

In 2017, after Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th president of the United States, there was a wide held panic and disbelief amongst liberals in the U.S. that this man could have been elected to the highest office in the country.​‡​ I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and it was shortly after his inauguration that I noticed an uptick in people reading George Orwell’s 1984 on the subway. (I’ve always tried to piece together reading trends on the subway, and how they catch on—in 2015 it was IQ84 by Takashi Murakami.) It was a strange collective moment; was it, that in bracing themselves for a tenuous but impending fascism, readers had to remind themselves of its existence? I was curious. In the wake of his upsetting election, why were people so quick to turn to dystopia? It’s not that I don’t love 1984 as a literary work. But it has so successfully cemented itself as part of the dystopian cannon, it’s hard not to wonder why readers gravitated to that book so immediately.

In another vein, there’s a protein drink called “Soylent”, its namesake being the 1973 film Soylent Green. The film’s plot focuses on life in an overpopulated New York City in the year 2022, and the detective who is uncovering a conspiracy about an algae-based drink. In the film, there is little availability of actual food, due to a warming climate and scarce natural resources. Soylent Green, which is sold as ambiguous square chips in a bag, is the most available alternative. The film’s climax occurs when Thorn (our superstar detective played by Charlton Heston) discovers that the Soylent processing facility is making the protein chips from deceased human bodies: the ultimate renewable resource. This film was made half a century ago. Fast-forward to today’s world: on the FAQ page of Soylent’s website, they have a tagline claiming that “no bodies were harmed in the making of [their] products.” There’s a bizarre joke here somewhere, and truthfully, it’s not funny. In a related line of thinking, Mark Zuckerberg’s move to name his virtual reality mega project after the “Metaverse” of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash misses a salient point. The world of Snow Crash is one of disrepair and neglect, wherein the “verse” is taking the place of a reality that is hard to survive in. Bizarrely, this fact is somehow ignored by the companies in our world that seek to commodify the metaverse.​§​ The primary chasers of the dystopian imaginary in this equation are mostly concerned with how it can sell their product.

The dystopian imaginary leaves me wanting more. The media we consume informs our thinking, from the personal to the collective. This is partially why I look to utopia within artmaking; there is no shortage of dystopian soothsayers in the mix. We live dystopia, we talk about it, and we color our fears to fill a void because it’s more profitable in the short term. If we have already sailed to that place, though, is utopia not worth a shot? Is it not worth visiting? The radical optimist in my heart, the one that is rooted to my many communities, yearns for the possibilities.

The film poster for Soylent Green is a painting that shows the protagonist, a Caucasian man in a beige coat, running from a Riot Control truck. The truck has a huge scoop attached to the front, which is full of protesters.
Original film poster from the 1973 film Soylent Green.

Reading about mycorrhizal fungi takes me there. The world of fungi, unruffled by the living dramas of human ego, seems to provide all the solutions to humanity’s messes—from bioremediation to ecosystem balance, fungi are constantly at work in ways that surprise and give me hope. But they don’t exist to be our saviors. They were here before us, and it’s theorized by mycologists that we exist because of them. Animals and fungi share a common ancestor and branched away from plants around 1.1 billion years ago. We are more closely related to fungi than plants, and I think homo sapiens could stand to learn much from their world. They are collaborative, they are flexible. Understanding the complexity of how shared mycorrhizal networks behave in ecosystems requires a stretch of the imagination; it doesn’t work to try and fit their behaviors into analogies made from human activities. The health of ecosystems is based on an imperative of reciprocity, with a vibrant exchange of nutrients and elements occurring between mycelial networks and their plant counterparts. Mycelial networks are integral to the multi-species entanglements that we are also a part of, despite our anthropocentric complaints. Western logic has made it easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow separate, different. We need constant reminders that we are earthlings. The biologist Merlin Sheldrake asks, “With much of life on Earth threatened by human activity, are there ways we can partner with fungi to help us adapt?”​¶​

Most mushroom producing-fungi thrive on the mess that humans make. The isolation that I often feel, just from existing within a late capitalist economy that fetishizes what Emma Goldman calls “the rugged individual”—it makes me feel like I’ve been ripped from the root. And yet, the soil underneath my feet shares my ancestry, as do the trees and worms and fallen leaves. Long after I’m gone, I look forward to my body being composted by the world-builders that are mycelium. The microplastics in my blood will be broken down and used for energy, and my bones will return to the original archive. When my time in this body is done, I’ll be engaging in another form of reciprocity: the art of decomposition, the sculpting of soil. 

To describe anything in our future, we must rely on words from the past. So, I’m going to rely on a lovely word, one that implies more than itself: entanglement. The idea of entanglement within quantum physics is meant to name the phenomenon of separate particles that cannot be described independently of another. It’s also the modus operandi of mycelia, which, according to Sheldrake, create and maintain worlds via their entanglements. A tangle is a mess. The word itself is a mess of Old English and Old French, coming from “a snarl of threads”: an action and a shape created from more than one component. A theme that I often return to within my art is methods of entanglement; the messes that define our present and future, the interdependent relationships of humans, non-humans, and all our kin, and the role that art must play within augury and world-building. Art will always have a place in the before and after of the apocalypse; as does narrative and memory. So, as artists, we must take up the work of contemporary augurs. What clues are to be gleaned from the formations of birds in our troubled skies? If there’s an art to living on a damaged planet, we are in the business of it.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is an anthropologist, feminist, and cultural theorist, amongst other things. In the words of her sometimes collaborator and co-teacher Donna Haraway, Tsing “practices sympoietics in edgy times.” Sympoietics being the praxis of making-with. It’s the radical idea that no earthling is truly alone, and nothing makes itself—we make one another.​#​

A tiny seedling is connected underground to a mycelial network; its roots spread out, with what look like little cloudy parts at the ends.
Cross-section of a seedling connected to the mycorrhizal network. Source: Rainforest Alliance

Tsing follows matsutake mushrooms throughout global assemblages and supply chains, in all the precariousness and world-making that comes with these fungal beings that are both commodity and gift. The stage is set in the wake of capitalist destruction, but her methodology goes further: a disciple of Ursula K. Le Guin’s, she employs her own “rush of troubled storytelling” to deliver a complicated, nuanced picture of the interrelations between humans, fungi, and everything else on Terra. She names this approach as a methodology, using the idea of contaminated diversity as the locus.​**​ It has been said that after the nuclear bomb fell on Hiroshima, the first thing to emerge from the charred landscape was a matsutake mushroom. Stories like this paint a specific picture; though this one is rooted in the past, it implies that after humans have hit the hard edge of times, there will be an impeccable world being built by non-human Terrans. In the meantime, entanglements, in all their messiness, may be the way forward for us as a species. 

As noted by Haraway, Tsing “performs thinking of a kind that must be cultivated in the all-too-ordinary urgencies of onrushing multi-species extinctions, genocides, immiserations, and exterminations.” Survival is collaborative, not alienated. And, like Tsing, one of her sources of inspiration is Ursula K. Le Guin, an incredible visionary and Utopian thinker.

Both Tsing and Haraway look to Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. It is a short declaration, but it takes the all-too familiar hero myth and retells it in feminist terms. The essay does not disavow technology, instead offering an anthropological perspective shift:

[Before] the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and ax; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger — for what’s the use of digging up a lot of potatoes if you have nothing to lug the ones you can’t eat home in — with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.

It makes sense to me. I am an adherent of what [Elizabeth] Fisher calls the Carrier Bag Theory of human evolution.

This theory not only explains large areas of theoretical obscurity and avoids large areas of theoretical nonsense (inhabited largely by tigers, foxes, and other highly territorial mammals); it also grounds me, personally, in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before.

Taking a well-known feminist theory within anthropology, Le Guin applies it to fiction. I’m trying to do it in this essay as well; taking ideas and squirreling them away for later, using them to build something whole. There is not one hero to the story to the future; there will be no Nada nor Thorn. We will have to forge radical reliance with one another. 

It is obvious that us 21st century humans (namely, us, and our children, and grandchildren) are inheriting a wastescape. I won’t surmise about the true scarcity of resources, but one thing I do know is that there is no shortage of waste now, and it will be abundant in the future. Which brings me to the final group of sympoeitic players within this essay: Agnès Varda and her Gleaners. This is something I’ll come back to shortly, but I do feel that waste will be more relevant as a resource in the coming years. Varda’s late-life documentary too became entangled in my research. Filmed in 1999, The Gleaners and I follows Varda as she interviews gleaners in the French countryside—these are the people who enter farms and orchards after the harvest is formally finished to take the leftover crop. Sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, the gleaners are everyday people, some of which live frugally. She speaks to artists who use waste in their artmaking, all while including commentary about her own aging body and the future she will meet. In meeting with gleaners, she also gleans, taking home potatoes, chairs, a broken clock, and stories. It is a unique kind of scavenging that she captures. Varda gets to know people who participate not only out of necessity, but also out of pleasure.

The hand of an older Caucasian woman holds up a potato to the camera, amongst a pile of potatoes in the background. The potato in her hand is shaped like a cartoon heart.
Agnes Varda (dir.), The Gleaners and I, Cine-Tamaris, 2000

What does the visibility of waste tell us about the value systems, beliefs, and politics that shape the planetary condition?​††​ Amanda Boetzkes notes, “gleaning provides a window into the global economic infrastructure: a vast wastescape. Contemporary gleaners draw from a profligate but stagnant world that is at risk of emptying itself of its own aesthetic value, sensibility, and criteria.” 

I find her take fascinating because it brings gleaning back into an aesthetic practice. It closes a loop that had been left open. And it places salvage within the greater context of consumer overflow. There is no aesthetic value beyond the methane producing garbage heap; everything rots in the end, even art. 

Gleaning, foraging, and scavenging are also practices of relation and risk-taking. A culture of disposability was not always the standard, but single-use objects have become hyper visible since the pandemic—this is perhaps another iteration of dystopia. My interests in the future always pull me back towards the material. When waste appears, it does not make the material of art merely literal, it bridges an aesthetic regime with the discourse of ecology. And I think this conversation will be at the center of culture-creation in the decades to come.

2. Reflecting

As an artist, I work with alienated topics: climate rage, eco-sexuality, ecology, violence, grief. But I’ve felt stopped by the persistent idea that materiality is taken for granted within painting, whereas it is critically questioned in other fields. And we must ask ourselves: what role will artists (or the art world for that matter) play when our ecosystems begin to unravel? 

As a forager, an earthling, and a gleaner at heart, I’m confronted by the fact that I’ve been working in isolation and buying art materials from a store. (And the store stocks these materials that are shipped from halfway across the globe, which come from a factory, where the raw materials are brought from a mine…) I find this unsustainable, but I’m doing it anyway. Where does the cotton in my canvas come from? Or the wood used to stretch it? Perhaps some boreal forest, and if I’m lucky there are mushrooms growing in the mess that’s left behind. I don’t have an answer, and my own artwork has become troublesome. I have recently turned towards trying to source pigments locally, a slow process. It is a far cry from the immediacy and sexiness of a pricy tube of cadmium red. 

I have often relied on being thrifty in my artmaking, scavenging materials for paintings or keeping the works small. Playing the covert parasite at my previous office job, I used the printer to make zines. Pre-pandemic, my work was also more collaborative: I organized events and poetry readings with other artists. This is something I miss and crave to do again.

“Energy: Yes! Quality: No!”

This is one of Thomas Hirschhorn’s personal guidelines for making art. When I first read this proclamation, it plucked a heartstring deep within me. Rather than it being a binary, Hirschhorn’s aversion to capital “Q” Quality is his refusal to have his art be neutralized by the exclusive criteria of “Quality”.​‡‡​ His love and acceptance for energy is an open invitation for momentum, whereas Quality is an institutional invention that is meant to keep barriers in place. I don’t care for quality, in the same way that I don’t care for paintings; it’s hard to deviate from conversations of luxury or hierarchy when speaking about either. I care about narratives that are reparations of the dystopian fantasy. I’m not sure if I’m evoking the future in my work, or a parallel world—my works look to reestablish emotional relationships between humans, non-humans, fungi, critters, and worlds. As of now, it’s visual. It needs to go further.

I believe in collectivity, in the Energy manifested by entanglements. Everything is already sympoietic, and the Energy is present; it just needs to be cultivated, honored. This is perhaps where risk comes in; I long for my drawings to become performative, worn, lived. So, it’s a resolution to do more gleaning, more entangling, when I have found alienation comfortable. I want to experiment with more collaborative work within art: choirs, operas, food forests, workshops. Community has been integral to my work as an artist; we are here because someone helped us get this far.

3. Envisioning

As far as we know, art has outlived apocalypse; there will be no shortage of flood myths for future generations. And there’s never been a greater need for creative intervention. I’m reluctant to put the ‘art world’ in one box or another, because there are multiple worlds to be worlded, and this movement began some time ago. Art is inherent to our world here, so where will it go? Much like the matsutake, art can exist simultaneously in the world of commodities, as well as gifts. It can be scaled, (like in the art market) or practiced at the level of community, or even privately. The so-called art ‘world’ isn’t limited to humans, either. We know that male bowerbirds, as part of their courtship ritual, build bowers for their mates. In and around the bower, the male places a variety of brightly colored objects he has collected. These objects–usually different among each species–may include hundreds of shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, coins, nails, rifle shells, or pieces of glass. They too rely on human waste, often collecting colorful, discarded plastic. The males spend hours arranging this collection of objects, giving them meaning and use. And then they dance. And sing. All that work is scenography, with the bower being their stage.​§§​

Our words matter. In a way, we are all augurs, because we have the chance to shape worlds every time we speak, or write, or listen or come together over a meal. It’s not as simple as dividing our auguries into ‘dystopian’ or ‘utopian’—binaries are a tool of colonialism, and if we are to commit to divesting of hierarchies and living entangled lives, those words must be re-understood. We must think as a species in a multispecies context and let this inform our narratives and language.

  1. ​*​
    Nicholas, Thomas, Hall, Galen, Schmidt, Colleen. “The faulty science, doomism, and flawed conclusions of Deep Adaptation”. July 2020
  2. ​†​
    Haraway, Donna. Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Chapter 2, Tentacular Thinking. Duke University Press, 2016.
  3. ​‡​
    Baer, Drake. (2016, November 9). The ‘Filter Bubble’ Explains Why Trump Won and You Didn’t See It Coming. The Cut.
  4. ​§​
    Rogers, A. (2021, October 26). In “Termination Shock,” Neal Stephenson Finally Takes on Global Warming. WIRED.
  5. ​¶​
    Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. Random House, 2021.
  6. ​#​
    Haraway, Donna. Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Chapter 3, Sympoiesis. Duke University Press, 2016.
  7. ​**​
    Lowenhaupt Tsing, Anna. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Chapter 2, Contamination as Collaboration. Princeton University Press, 2015.
  8. ​††​
    Boetzkes, Amanda. Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art And The Drive To Waste. Chapter 1: Gleaning, Wastescapes, and Other Critical Acts. MIT Press, 2019.
  9. ​‡‡​
    Hirschhorn, Thomas. 2013
  10. ​§§​
    Male Satin Bowerbirds must master many skills. (2018, October 4). BirdWatching.