The Leaf-Tailed Gecko and the Orchid Mantis
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There are at least two ways — with potential deviations and ramifications — of inhabiting our current ecological crisis. The first is to live in fear, paralyzed by angst, overwhelmed to the point of feeling a false sense of immunity to it all. The other is to live through propositions, reflecting beyond denunciation to shape desirable futures.
We should always question, however: desirable to whom? Can we realistically create a universally desirable future for all the living and nonliving beings with whom we coexist? Perhaps not, yet in the exercise of not only imagining, but producing possible prospects, we may find ways in which these different perspectives and desires can be permeable, morphable, empathized with, and ultimately shared.
As Octavia Butler underlines in her writings, the great human contradiction is that we as an intelligent species will always find our demise in seeking hierarchical power and righteousness. By reorienting our relationship with the ecosystem, we may find ways to dismantle the capitalist drive for growth and “progress,” not only to include nonhuman perspectives in political, social, and economic dialogues but also to reconsider how we humans relate to each other as members of the same species. Thinking through queer theory and ecology together generates a fertile ground to imagine futures of coexistence and degrowth, worlds that include a diversity of voices and experiences in a conversation based not on oppression but on symbiotic relationships.
Progressive forces within our globalized society are slowly awakening to (or at least are no longer able to actively ignore) the colonial heteropatriarchal abuses of power that have created a reality of injustice, extractivism, greed, slow violence, and neglect. More and more individuals and collectives are cultivating and sharing the desire to co-design (or co-inspire) realities that propose and acknowledge a more mutual relationship with the environment and the planet.
If we break from scientificist language and categorization as the main sources for understanding biological relationships, perhaps we might find different, queer ways to include the experience of otherhood in multidisciplinary and multilayered systems of knowledge-sharing and creation.1 The Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO) is one such way; Lee Pivnik and Nicolas Baird, the co-directors of this ever-evolving collaborative organism, are rewriting histories, holistically looking at science to create new narratives and amplifying voices oppressed in the past and the present. Theirs is an interdisciplinary, artist-run platform that, crucially, creates cultural and artistic programming; in other words, IQECO is generating the vital work of deconfiguring societal and scientific dichotomies not only at a cognitive or intellectual level, but at an affective level.
A recent example is Mutability & Mutualism, hosted by the Institute for Postnatural Studies. As a co-founder of this Madrid-based platform for artistic experimentation, I had the pleasure of working with Lee and Nicolas in the coordination of this 2022 seminar, which offered encounters with artists, researchers, thinkers, and activists who expand on queer theories through their practice, making visible the interconnected, entangled conditions of life on Earth and honoring the strange, multispecies amalgamation we live in community with. The online series offered a number of scholarships, as a way to make the information accessible to a wide array of participants.
Two conceptual bases for the Institute of Queer Ecology are the performativity of science and the mimicry of institutional and academic structures. I wondered how Lee and Nicolas understand mimicry as a methodology for creating systems for artistic and knowledge-sharing initiatives that are deviant from scientific methodologies. So I asked.Lee Pivnik:
Mimicry is one of the most spectacular things evolution has ever given us. In the past, we’ve drawn this relationship between survival strategies in queer communities, our own backgrounds, and what it was like trying to grow up and mimic a predominant system. Of course, like all of these themes, we talk about how queer ecology has a gradient of different relationships, depending on who you’re referring to within the queer community. For example, passing for a trans person is very different from trying to pass as straight. We usually give two examples of mimicry, one being the perfectly camouflaged animal, like a leaf-tailed gecko that looks like a perfect, crispy, dead leaf; there’s that kind of blending in and dissolving into the world. The other example is the orchid mantis, which encompasses some kind of flamboyance and stands out as a way of presenting itself first and foremost, loud and proud — but doing it in a way that provides a biological advantage. In this case, it’s not so much about blending in with the orchid, but behaviorally corresponding to it. This is how the mimicry of institutions for us comes in.Nicolas Baird:
I think mimicry is seeing something and making an echo of it, or a reflection of it. We’re working in this space that inhabits this intersection of scientific interest, artistic practice, and critical thinking, and in these different realms, we are all finding truths, figuring out how the world works, and trying to understand it, on an individual level and on a broader scale. How can we understand things as communities? Each practice has its ways of reflecting and making the world. In science, we usually call it a model, and in art, we call it a metaphor, and these models and metaphors, in the form of mimicry, unite in the work that we do. The institute itself is a model and a metaphor.
Can science be queer? Could science work without taxonomizing the world? Could it overcome its hierarchical lexicons and methodologies?Nicolas:
Science can absolutely be queer. How science can be queer is a more difficult question. In the last six years we’ve worked with more than one hundred and thirty artists; together they have a superwide range of backgrounds and interests, but all of us are united by both this love of the environment and grief for its degradation. My scientific training is in taxonomy, and it’s really interesting to move between that space in the sciences and the arts. I think it’s really in reconstructing these scientific narratives where some beautiful queering can happen, particularly in evolutionary biology. If we think about stories like social Darwinism — “survival of the fittest” competition — as one of these textbook ways to understand the frameworks, the models, and the metaphors for how life works and understand it as only one way of narration, we can find so much evidence and so many other interesting ways to rethink that. To find other narratives is the queer enterprise.Lee:
Science is historically a colonial tool as well. A lot of evolutionary biology was used in ways of great destruction because it could be deployed in any political project and direction. Queer ecology is taking back ownership of the science and focusing on other retellings of the evidence. Beyond that, there are other ways in which science starts to overlap with queerness. Queerness is a desire for intimacy and interconnectivity, not necessarily romantic, but as a way of relating to the world and other species — to a partner, to ourselves, and to each other. The relationality of queerness is undeniably one of the biggest factors in how ecology comes into the sciences. Looking at ecology and queerness together is how you can bridge those worlds, and what we have been trying to do.Yuri:
In one Mutability & Mutualism session, we had the pleasure of having Jack Halberstam as guest lecturer. Jack shared with us the concept of unworlding as a way to transform the present — unworlding as bodies and landscapes that become and unbecome simultaneously. We explored destruction, or dystopian scenarios, as possible exercises for thinking about new, desirable futures. Can we unbuild without destruction? How do we co-world, and who should we co-world with?Lee:
There is a moment in the chrysalis period of metamorphosis called liquidation, in which the caterpillar is dissolved into the butterfly. Is that destruction, or is it not? If we look at this as a metaphor for world-building, this process is simultaneously destruction and creation. The main entity is transformed, but what parts of it are still there, and what memories does it still have of the previous world/body?Nicolas:
The fact that an adult monarch butterfly, who’s never been to their ancestral home in the forest in Mexico, can still find their way back traveling from where they were born in Michigan … they can know their path after metamorphosing into liquid, literally liquifying inside the chrysalis and reforming a new body and a new brain. There’s something still within that has not been destroyed. This practice of mutating, or being mutable and transforming, and shapeshifting into another being, makes me think that we have to unbecome to become somebody or something else.Lee:
When we talk about world-building, which we often do in our projects, we like to add in a precursor, that we’re not building the only world. In a multiverse perspective, there are different worlds to spawn and inhabit, and the world we want to see will probably follow a mushroom metaphor, spreading underground until it can sprout. In these moments the mushrooms burst above ground and coexist with countless other worlds because there’s no Universalist theory to come to at the end of the day.
Through exhibitions, films, digital content, publications, seminars, and workshops, Lee, Nicolas, and their expanding cohort of collaborators are undoing and rearticulating our way of feeling in relation to deviant modes of life and ecology by placing the symbiotic interconnectivity between species at the center of their worldview. IQECO’s queerness and adaptability allow their projects to easily traverse renowned cultural institutions and underground venues for queer joy. Their film Metamorphosis, a three-part proposal to reorganize the world (using as a model the life cycles of insects that undergo complete metamorphosis), was fittingly screened in a Bushwick dance club during a drag performance; in a room with more than one hundred and fifty people, the work was received in the midst of laughter, dancing, and celebration. Thus do these artists leave a trail of critical hope for future generations and for those who currently struggle to find their voices within the ecological and political discourses of our time.
Their new project, Hysteria, offers a fierce embodiment of this hope. The film is an eco-feminist retelling of the medieval dancing plagues that occurred between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. As Lee describes it, Hysteria “is trying to build kinship between transgressive dancers who were inflicted with the desire to dance in a moment of no future, of fatalism, either through famine or political strife, and today’s climate collapse and environmental degradation, where it can feel like there’s no future. So the cast of characters you see on screen in this dance film is moved between protest and joy, dance and wildness, as a way to put the brakes on a bleak future.”
This text includes content from an interview conducted between Yuri Tuma and the Institute of Queer Ecology on February 9, 2023 via Zoom. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Scientism holds that the scientific method is the best and only universally applicable means of gaining genuine knowledge about the world.
Yuri Tuma is a multidisciplinary Brazilian artist who focuses on the investigation of contemporary narratives related to diverse ecologies through sound art, installation, and performance as a way to address and reevaluate the human/animal binomial. In early 2020, Tuma co-founded the Institute for Postnatural Studies (IPS) in Madrid, a platform that focuses on the relationship between contemporary artistic practice and the necessary revision of the concept of nature. In addition, he coordinates Cthulhu Books, a publishing project that explores the political potential of imagining new worlds and possible futures for the planet through academic and artistic research.
Photo by Irene Baqué
The Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO) is an ever-evolving collaborative organism that seeks to bring peripheral solutions to environmental degradation to the forefront of public consciousness. IQECO projects are interdisciplinary but unified and grounded in the theoretical framework of queer ecology, an adaptive practice concerned with interconnectivity, intimacy, and multispecies relationality. The collective works to overturn the destructive human-centric hierarchies by imagining an equitable, multispecies future. IQECO was founded in 2017 by Lee Pivnik while he was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design and is co-directed by artist and evolutionary biologist Nicolas Baird, who joined the project shortly after its inception and has continued to steer its growth and focus. The idea of mimicry lies at the heart of IQECO’s vibrant identity — mimicry as an act of survival, manifested in the behavior of many species and distinctly connected to the history of queer communities. IQECO presents as an institute in an act of mimicry and infiltration, reintegrating queerness into scientific discourse and bringing artists to the table of environmental decision making. To date, IQECO has worked with over 125 different artists to present interdisciplinary programming that oscillates between curating programs and directly producing artworks, presenting projects with the Guggenheim Museum, ICA Miami, Julia Stoschek Collection, Medellín Museum of Modern Art, Prairie, Bas Fisher Invitational, and Gas Gallery.
Photo courtesy the artists