The Art of Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Perceptions of Nature in an Age of Decline • Empty Mirror

Think of seeing a horse. How often do we see a horse as something we can ride, and can we learn to look at horses without ever thinking about how humans can use them? When we see mountains, how often do we perceive them as beautiful, and when are they just something in the background? Do we see our smartphones as essential to our daily lives, or do we see them as unnecessary but sometimes-useful tools? Are some ways of perceiving the world better than others? Many people – including me – worry that human actions might cause widespread environmental collapse and economic ruin, and that the ways humans use modern technology might be leading to spiritual decline (cf. Murphy, 2003). How might we best see the world now, in light of these fears about the future?

This essay reflects on the artwork of Nastja Säde Rönkkö, focusing in particular on three of her projects: Take Me Anywhere (2016), 6 Months Without (2018-2019), and For Those Yet To Be (2016-2018). This essay considers her art in relation to the work of philosophers who write about nature, art, and technology. I have also talked with Nastja in-person, exchanged hand-written letters with her, and experienced strong emotions and sense-experiences in response to her artwork. While influenced by the work of other philosophers, some of the reflections below are personal to me. As this essay considers Nastja’s art, it reflects on the questions posed above and the ways in which artworks can offer insight in response.

Nastja is a Finnish visual and performing artist, whose artworks are often multifaceted, frequently involving elements of performance art, and sometimes including texts, found objects, photographs, and videos. Her artworks also frequently prompt interactions between her and members of her audience – though “audience” might not be the right word for participants in her projects (cf. De Wacther, 2019, p. 38; De Wacther, 2017, pp. 217-220).1 Nastja’s art has helped me to engage with the questions, above, because her artworks closely explore a number of relevant themes, including “humanity, the evil of consumption, dependence on electronic communication, and climate change” (Myllyharju & Lehto-Vahtera, 2019, p. 9).

Take Me Anywhere (2016)

Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Take Me Anywhere, 2016 2 channel HD video, duration 10 min, video/edit Luke TurnerNastja Säde Rönkkö, Take Me Anywhere, 2016 2 channel HD video, duration 10 min, video/edit Luke Turner.
Image courtesy of Nastja Säde Rönkkö.

In 2016, Nastja created a ten-minute video artwork titled Take Me Anywhere, which was shot and edited by her frequent collaborator, Luke Turner. In the beginning of the video, the audience saw a silent desert landscape. Perhaps it would be better described as a “prairie.” No humans or animals were visible; the audience witnessed cacti and scrub-plants, hills in the background, and a blue, cloudless sky. After a moment, Nastja entered from the bottom right, leading a horse with a saddle on its back. They stopped mid-shot. Nastja climbed onto the horse, covered her eyes with a red bandana decorated with white print, and tied the bandana around her head. For the remainder of the video, Nastja rode the horse blindfolded, without being able to see a thing. In a one-sentence description that she posted on her website in conjunction with the video, Nastja writes: “I was blindfolded and taken wherever the horse wanted to go” (2016).

When I typically see a horse, I think of people riding it. More specifically, I think of people controlling the horse – seeing someplace they want to go and guiding the horse to that location. Some philosophers worry that humans might, in general, develop the attitude that plants and animals are primarily tools for us to use (Paden, 1992, p. 243 & p. 247). There is a risk that we might come to feel that the only important qualities that plants and animals possess are the ones that make them useful to us (cf. Lovitt, 1977, p. xxix; Heidegger, 1977, pp. 17 & 33; Paden, 1992, p. 247). Even when we are not actively using them to achieve our goals, we might come to feel that their most important qualities are whatever make them ready for us to use, should we choose to do so. I am worried that I, myself, might have developed this attitude. I find it deeply troubling that, when I reflect on my perspective, I am unsure if this is the way I already view the world.

There was a clear sense in which Nastja made use of a horse; without it, she would not have been able to make her work of art. But she did not use it the way that humans typically do. In the moment, she did not control where it was going. She did not treat the horse as a tool that could take here where she decided to go; the horse was more than just a resource for humans to control so they can travel in a fun and effective way. Instead, she ceded control to the horse.

In correspondence with me, Nastja writes: “It was scary to lose a key sense, my sight.” She had borrowed the horse, which she had not ridden before, and she writes: “I didn’t know the horse at all and normally this kind of trust takes time and a lot of work, but I didn’t have that time.” Riding a horse blindfolded like she did was not without risks: “With horses, you have to be relaxed in order to ride; they sense if you are not and get nervous and jumpy. It’s dangerous not to be relaxed.” There was also the possibility of external threats as well: “There were mountain lions around, and I knew that the horse would notice them way before I would. So I was relaxed because the horse was relaxed and perhaps vice versa.”

Some philosophers have worried that, when we seek to control and master something else, we might become less likely to see it as what it genuinely is, on its own terms, and more likely to see it in terms of usefulness to us – as something that stands in reserve for us to use (cf. Murphy, 2003, pp. 87-88; Lovitt, 1977, pp. xxv & xxvii; Heidegger, 1977, pp. 5 & 27). Nastja, in contrast, was not – for the duration of the video – the master of the horse.

In fact, the horse promptly took Nastja completely off-camera. In the film, the camera was originally set, unmoving, giving a broad shot of the prairie and sky. By the end of the first 1½ minutes of the film, Nastja had guided the horse into the middle of the shot, she had climbed onto the horse, and her blindfold was secure. After that, the horse slowly plodded back, away from the camera and toward the hills, gradually taking Nastja to the film audience’s right. The camera did not zoom in or move to follow them. And then, by just after the two-minute mark, the horse took Nastja completely off-screen, leaving the audience with a view of the empty prairie, again. With the freedom it was granted, the horse removed Nastja and itself from the video entirely. It was only a bit after the three-minute mark that Nastja and the horse reappeared in the main shot, and they initially appeared tiny and indistinct, in the distance.

Perhaps, by ceding control to the horse, and by choosing not to master it for a time, Nastja let her audience see the horse on its own terms, rather than just as something humans can use. Or, if an audience member like me could not help but continue to think of the way that horses are typically used – even if I could not help but think of the horse as something that humans control to travel where they want – perhaps Nastja’s artwork nonetheless led me to consciously reconsider the way I typically think about horses and other animals and plants. Some philosophers agree that some works of art have the power to do this – to confront us with the way we typically view nature as a resource for us to use (Heidegger, 1977, p. 35; cf. Kirkham, 2016, pp. 111).

Nastja not only ceded control to the horse, but also placed trust in the horse; she relaxed and relied on the horse to notice any potential dangers. This strikes me as a display of environmental humility – the disposition, not to dominate and control nature, but to accommodate ourselves to it, instead (cf. Kirkham, 2016, p. 98). It was humble to let another animal have this degree of control and trust, rather than to try to control it. And if showing humility is associated with showing respect and reverence (ibid., p. 100), then demonstrating environmental humility would also mean demonstrating a respect for nature. Nastja did not just show her audience what it might look like to radically break with typical views of a horse’s usefulness; she more generally demonstrated a specific relationship with an animal: one of trust, respect, and accommodation.

Some philosophers worry that, if we view plants and animals as a resource we can use, we will tend to underestimate how interconnected everything on earth is; we run the risk of thinking of the human as the “subject” and plants and animals as disconnected “object” (ibid., p. 105; Murphy, 2003, pp. 86-87 & 91). Perhaps, if we instead vest humble trust in animals, we might instead better appreciate the interconnectedness of living things.

I know that I often think of many natural things – not just animals like horses – as “object” – as tools that can be used by humans. For example, I can no longer look at a waterfall for a lengthy stretch without at some point thinking – if only for a moment – of dams and electrical power (cf. Heidegger, 1977, pp. 16). The river with the waterfall is no longer just a river for me, but is instead also a supplier of electrical power; to me the river is what it is in part because humans have made power stations (ibid.). The river reveals itself to me as something possessing energy that humans can unlock and store up for whatever end we desire; I cannot help but see the river as something which is on call for humans and on reserve for our use (ibid. & p. 21).

When I have asked undergraduate students if they see waterfalls like this, the majority insist that they do not, and some claim that my view of waterfalls is “weird.” Perhaps they do not see waterfalls like this, but I do suspect that many of them are inclined to view plants and non-human animals as existing for the sake of humans. Curious, I have asked students in dozens different classes to submit a document in which each student fills in the following blank with the first phrase that comes to mind: “The purpose of a tree is to ______.” While some students inevitably write “make paper,” or “provide shade,” the most popular answer by far is “produce oxygen.” When I ask students about this answer in class, they clarify that trees are producing oxygen for humans and other animals; as a group they inevitably emphasize humans. Some students have argued that they do not really think of plants as existing for the sake of humans; they say they only gave the answer they did because I used the word “purpose” and they are inclined to think of “purpose” in relation to how something helps humans. Even if this is the case, the result of this classroom exercise might still seem troubling. Is it good to think of “purpose” – even in the context of talking about nature – solely in terms of usefulness to humans? Perhaps Nastja’s film can help us to reconsider and see the world differently.2

Sensing a Horse

When the camera first showed a close-up of Nastja on the horse, we could see her leaning forward, close to the horse’s mane. Her right arm was mostly hidden, but her left arm was visible; her forearm and hand lay on the horse’s neck, her fingers spread out. She gently rubbed and stroked the horse’s neck with her hand, moving her fingers in what seemed like fond and caring gestures. In correspondence with me, she writes: “I rubbed and touched the horse to let it know that I’m friendly & that I appreciate it and also to calm the horse & myself down. I think it was also to make the horse know I was vulnerable.” Watching the close-up shot of her like that, I could almost feel the horse’s coat and hair, myself, the gentle sensation of fine hair on my fingertips. Sometimes she would bring her fingers together, gently massaging its hair or skin.

As I viewed the film in my university office, watching Nastja on the horse beneath the sun, I could almost feel the sun on my own head, too. I know that when I close my eyes and focus my other senses on my surroundings, sounds, touch, and smells become far more prominent. I wonder what the experience of riding the horse was like for Nastja. In my imagination, I can feel the air around me. Was the air cool? In my imagination, I think it was, but I do not know the reality. In correspondence, Nastja describes the smells around her: “The smell was sweet, I think, sage or something. Joshua trees. Smell of the desert. And horse-sweat! Horses smell real strong.”

I remember horse riding lessons that I used to have with my aunt when I was a child, on a farm she helped to run. The film brought back vague memories of the feel of a horse’s muscles beneath my hands and under my legs, and the way that slight changes in the horse’s muscles and posture matched the larger movements of the horse. A later split-screen shot showed Nastja rubbing the horse’s neck while it bent forward to eat scrub-grass on the ground. Watching the film, I could almost feel the shift of the horse beneath my own legs, bending forward and shifting beneath me to eat. Nastja remarks that, blindfolded as she was, she relied on her feelings of the horse’s body and its movements, subtle or explicit. She writes: “I relied on my feel of the horse, its body, if its body was tense or not, its movements, fast or slow.”

The film struck me as meditative – perhaps because of its pacing and frequent stillness, perhaps because Nastja was not focused on her sight, or perhaps for some other reason entirely that I cannot quite place. When I asked Nastja about this, she remarked: “It wasn’t meditative in that traditional sense,” but she did remark that she was “relaxed because I had to trust the horse.” Perhaps this – this sense of relaxation and trust – was what made the film seem meditative to me, instead. I know that as I watch the film, the emotion I feel is relaxation. I can feel my own breathing slow down; my breaths in and out grow longer. I also know that I can only happily attend to the video as it deserves if I am already in the right mindset when I start watching it. If I am anxious when I start watching, I quickly become distracted by my own pressing thoughts, and stop focusing sufficiently on the screen. But when I come to it with the right mindset, it makes me all the more relaxed, and makes me focus, all the more, on color, feeling, and sound.

Overall, the film involved my senses – my sense of sight, in watching it, and my senses of touching, hearing, and feeling through sympathetic imagination. I could sometimes swear that I could hear the subtle sounds of the horse’s hooves on the ground, or the little “huffing” sounds that horses can make sometimes, as they trot along. I was surprised when, turning up the volume on my office computer as much as I could, these sounds were only barely present if at all. I could hear them so clearly in my imagination!

By the end of the film, the sun was setting, and the sky changed color – turning almost-purple in parts, sometimes appearing darker near the horizon, and sometimes instead appearing lighter, there. By the end of the film, Nastja and the horse appeared as a black silhouette against a darkening sky.

6 Months Without (2018-2019)

Nastja Säde Rönkkö, 6 Months Without, 2018-2019, performance, HD-videos, text, seminars, durational interventionNastja Säde Rönkkö, 6 Months Without, 2018-2019, performance, HD-videos, text, seminars, durational intervention.
Image courtesy of Nastja Säde Rönkkö.

I wrote to Nastja about Take Me Anywhere while she was involved in another later artwork – her 2018-2019 project titled 6 Months Without. For six months, Nastja sought to use the Internet as rarely as possible – intentionally using it only on rare occasions when she needed to “cheat” in order to “deal with emergencies, travel disruptions and accidents” (De Wachter, 2019, p. 39). During her time without the Internet, she lived at the Somerset House Studios in London and held several workshops and seminars there. She also invited whoever wanted to send her hard-copy letters using the postal service, and friends and fans could visit her in-person at the studio. At the end of the project, Nastja held an exhibition that showed: some of the letters she had received; some of the physical Business Relationships and newspapers she had read; photos taken during the project, including photos of letters and of people she had met; and two videos she created, in which she documents the experience and reads aloud some of the letters she received (ibid., pp. 40-41; Rönkkö, 2019B).

During the duration of her project, Nastja and I exchanged three letters each, over the course of four months. (It took a long time for letters to travel between Florida, where I live, and London, where she was staying, and it also took each of us time to write each letter.) My first letter was largely typed-out and was a bit formal in its language. It had a bit of personal content but focused more on theory. Her first letter, in contrast, was hand-written. Besides letters received from elderly relatives, I do not think I had received a hand-written letter in the mail since I was a child. The fact that Nastja’s letter was hand-written gave the letter so much more significance than it would have had to me, otherwise. Her letter was also personal in a way that mine was not, which I found touching and disarming in the best of ways. I experienced joy – almost giddiness – in receiving a personal, hand-written letter like that.

She asked me about moving to Florida, mentioned friends that she has who live near me, and described a trip she had taken to a museum. (I’m deliberately not going into much detail, for privacy’s sake.) My second letter, in response, was entirely hand-written and far more personal, talking about my life and asking about hers. In a third letter, written in response, Nastja answered a few questions I had about her artwork, including questions I asked about Take Me Anywhere, and she kindly let me know that I could quote her answers in my written work, like this current essay. All of my quotations from Nastja, above, came from this third, hand-written letter.

Ellen Mara De Wachter writes that “6 Months Without tested a dual strategy: on the one hand, a withdrawal from a parallel life through abstinence, and on the other hand a project of enriched communication with a small group of people” (De Wachter, 2019, p. 41). The website of the Somerset House Studies, where Nastja lived during her project, adds that: “The intention of Rönkkö’s slow offline existence and the accompanying events is to actively research, create and test out new ways of connecting, communicating, and being in a city, community and the society” (Somerset House, 2019A).

6 Months Without is an artwork that responds, specifically, to the “ubiquity of social media” in the western world (De Wachter, 2019, p. 41). One of the events organized as part of Nastja’s residency focused in part on investigating “feminist alternatives for contemporary digital culture” (Somerset House, 2019B). Another event asked: “What are the future opportunities digital technologies can offer for the greater good of communities?” It also asked: “What kind of political strength and opportunities for resistance might there be in slow (offline) living?” (Somerset House, 2019C). There is a clear political dimension to 6 Months Without, reflected in both event-descriptions and in some of the letters Nastja chose to exhibit and reproduce as part of the project. They indicate that the people who are “in charge of emerging technologies” are using those technologies “for their own interests, through data collection, social media addiction, fake news, internet governance and such” (ibid.). Nastja’s artwork asks us to consider: “What kind of political strength and opportunities for resistance there might be in a slow (offline) living?” (ibid.)

Nastja’s two projects, 6 Months Without and Take Me Anywhere, challenge me in similar ways. Take Me Anywhere challenges me to reconsider the way I see the world; I am too inclined to think of natural things, like horses, as tools or resources for us to use. 6 Months Without also challenges me, encouraging me to consider different ways of engaging with technology. Now, what if we can take the notion of technology to directly relate to the risk of seeing natural things as resource? Then, the two projects would concern closely-related topics.

Martin Heidegger defines “technology” as a “mode of revealing” (1977, p. 13), in which everything we see is revealed as “standing-reserve” (ibid., p. 20) – as ready for use by humans, even when it is not actively being used. Heidegger gives the example of an unoccupied airplane on the ground, and writes that: “Revealed, it stands on the taxi strip only as standing-reserve, inasmuch as it is ordered to ensure the possibility of transportation. For this it must be in its whole structure and in every one of its constituent parts, on call for duty, i.e. ready for takeoff” (ibid., p. 17). Heidegger remarks that many things in nature – like plants and rivers – are revealed as “standing-reserve” as well. He writes: “What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station” (p. 16), the soil is “a mineral deposit” (p. 14), and “Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry” (p. 15).

Building on Heidegger, Nin Kirkham claims that “the technological framework is a way of seeing the world, a way that the real is “revealed” to us, whereby everything is reduced to, or ordered as, ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) or resource” (2016, p. 107). Kirkham adds that Heidegger can be read as highlighting “the problem of designating the entire nonhuman world as merely a resource for our exploitation” (ibid.).

“Technology” becomes the name for a way of seeing the world – seeing everything purely as a tool for us to use, or as a source of energy for us to exploit. Understood that way, Take Me Anywhere challenges us to consider the technological framework that tints our view of the world, and ask if we might come to see it differently. And 6 Months Without asks us to consider alternative ways of connecting with each other, that do not rely as much on modern inventions, which might suit ways of seeing that are very different from technology.

Nastja does not, herself, express ideas like this in published literature. The closest I have seen her come is when, in the context of a letter she wrote and exhibited as part of 6 Months Without, she writes the following about living for a month without the Internet: “I feel like the rhythm of my life is changing. Or not my life, I think it is more a headspace. Like the Internet hasn’t left me really. My mind still operates in online mode” (Rönkkö, 2019A, p. 232). I like this idea of a mind operating in online mode, and this quote makes me think of the Internet seeping into our blood, filling us up. This is at least distantly related to the idea that technology is a “mode of revealing” (Heidegger, 1977, p. 13) and that the “the technological framework is a way of seeing the world” (Kirkham, 2016, p. 107). We might wonder if we can achieve different modes for our minds to operate in, different ways of seeing, and different modes of revealing.

As just one example, perhaps we need not see our smartphones, continuously plugged into the Internet, as essential to functioning well. Perhaps there can be power and strong connection in “slow (offline) living” (Somerset House, 2019C), and we can see our smartphones as nothing more than inessential but sometimes-useful tools.

For Those Yet To Be (2016-2018)

 Nastja Säde Rönkkö, for those yet to be, 2016-2018, performance for video, 22 videos, text Nastja Säde Rönkkö, for those yet to be, 2016-2018, performance for video, 22 videos, text.
Image courtesy of Nastja Säde Rönkkö.

Nastja and the Somerset House Studios organized a series of events as part of her residency, during which she completed 6 Months Without. The series of events, titled Without You, I’m Nothing, featured three different events including performances, workshops, discussions, and lecture. The Somerset House Studio’s website claims that: “This series of events is born out of a sensibility that we are at the end of the world as we know it: current ecological, political and technological narratives and histories are volatile and unstable” (Somerset House, 2019C). The events are intended to “glimpse into the possible futures of humankind and otherkind” in light of current “environmental disasters,” the “future of net neutrality,” and “vanishing species and looming nuclear disasters” (ibid).

The final event in the series was titled, “The End / Survival Guide for a Post Apocalyptic Child.” In the event description online, it describes many people’s “very tangible fears of an event that will end it all, be it a total environmental collapse, robot takeover, or a nuclear war” (ibid.). But the event also sought to look into the “uncertain future of our planet” with “a glimmer of hope” (ibid.). Together, the participants at the event asked not only how people might avoid major catastrophes, but also how they might live more happily in a sustainable world. The event description asks: “What is the future we will leave for those yet to be?”

This question, above, includes in it the title of one of Nastja’s other artworks: For Those Yet To Be (2016-2018). The description for an event developed in conjunction with 6 Months Without seems to directly tie that project to one of Nastja’s other artworks. In fact, many of Nastja’s artworks seem to be interrelated. According to De Wacther, many of Nastja’s projects commonly respond to the anxiety associated with a constellation of interconnected issues, including: “the preponderance of climate-related events and natural disasters, the 24-hour news cycle, the ubiquity of social media, and the rise of populism” (De Wacther, 2019, p. 41). For Those Yet To Be is no exception, responding in part to our world’s current environmental crisis.

For Those Yet To Be is an ongoing artwork currently consisting of performance, 22 videos, and text. For this project, Nastja visited what she describes as “some of the most fragile sites of our planet” (2018). She writes: “I went to places and spaces that are already, or are about to be destroyed by humans: travelling to mines, glaciers, farms and nuclear disaster sites such as Chernobyl in Ukraine, Talvivaara in Finland, Athabasca Oil Sands, Alberta, Canada, and the Amazon rainforest” (ibid.). At each location, Nastja made a video showing the beauty of its environment. In each video, Nastja appeared on camera and silently held up a cardboard sign on which a simple phrase was written in capital letters. She refers to these performances as “a one person protest with a cardboard sign” (ibid.). But, instead of overtly political language, the text on each sign is “ambiguous” and “poetic” (ibid.). Nastja writes that she considers the text of each sign to be “critical and apologetic messages for future generations, loosely implying what has happened, or what will happen” in the location where she held the sign in front of the camera (ibid.).

One such video depicted the site of a number of icebergs. In the foreground, there was a shallow, grey-blue body of slow-moving water, similar in color to the cloudy sky above it. In the background, off-white icebergs jutted out of the water, here and there, some appearing round and smooth, others sharper. The film had great depth of perspective; the water, icebergs, and sky seemed to go on forever in the background. Because of the depth of perspective, and also because of the uniformity of the film’s color (grey-blue sky and water), the scene appeared both beautiful and peaceful. Initially, there was no human on camera. After a moment, Nastja entered the shot, wearing a grey winter jacket and winter hat, and her feet audibly crunched in a bit of snow in front of the body of water. She stepped into the water, which, where she stood, did not cover her feet, and raised a piece of folded cardboard she has been carrying. She unfolded it, converting it into a sign. On the sign was written the phrase, in capital letters, “GLACIERS YOU WILL NOT SPEAK.” She held the sign above her head for close to two minutes before lowering it and walking off camera. The final shot was of the still glaciers and slow-moving water, again. Another such video showed her, dressed entirely in red, standing in a field with a sunset behind her. There she held a sign reading: “SOMETHING ABOUT KARMA.” Another video showed her standing in a lush tropical forest, dark green palm fronds above her and her legs obscured by lighter green ferns, wearing a hard-hat and holding the sign, “GREEN DESERTS YOU WILL ROAM.” When exhibited in a gallery, Nastja lined these bright videos up next to each other, on opposite sides of an otherwise darkened, empty room.

Writing about For Those Yet To Be, Nastja claims: “There is a sensibility that we are close to the end of the world as we know it: current ecological, political, and technological narratives are volatile and often dark” (2018). She writes that For Those Yet To Be “aims to reflect these changes through personal experience: exploring our fragile environment through emotion, presence, and vulnerability” (ibid.). What brings me back to these videos and images again and again is the juxtaposition of three things: (1) the knowledge that these locations are fragile and either have been – or might soon be – dramatically altered by human actions; (2) the beauty of the locations, themselves; and (3) the poetic, ambiguous nature of the signs that Nastja holds. Because of the juxtaposition, the signs’ content makes me sad, but because of their poetry or ambiguity, they also seem almost “playful” (though this is not exactly the right word, I cannot think of a better one).

There is, I think, a vulnerability to watching these videos and seeing these images. The videos do not make their audience take a defensive or attacking stance, as they might if the signs were aggressively and unambiguously political. The videos do not directly (although perhaps they do, indirectly) ask us to aggressively blame anyone for the world’s problems, or to feel defensive at being attacked, ourselves. In fact, taken by themselves, the videos give no sense of environmental catastrophe. If a viewer were unaware of the fragility of nature and the harmful actions of humankind, the locations in the videos would simply be beautiful, and the text of the signs would just be poetry. Because the videos do not explicitly show the world in crisis, and because they do not push us, in the audience, to respond aggressively or defensively, perhaps they allow us to see the world more vulnerably. I understand For Those Yet To Be
as demonstrating yet another way of seeing nature – with vulnerability and a poetic eye, recognizing its beauty on its own, guided in part by emotion, yet intelligently recognizing serious issues, and open to whatever change is possible for each of us.

Perhaps, when we engage with artwork like that which Nastja creates, we can practice seeing beauty in the world with a poetic and vulnerable eye.3 Perhaps, the more we meaningfully engage with such artwork, the better we will become at seeing the world as beautiful. For example, perhaps, by engaging with art, we can learn to always see mountains as beautiful, and never see them as just something in the background. Perhaps we can come to more frequently see everything in our lives as beautiful – buildings, streets, trees and plants, and all the people with whom we come into contact in our day-to-day lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson wonderfully captures these ideas. He writes that every day “we are immersed in beauty but our eyes have no clear vision,” and that it is “the office of art to educate the perception of beauty” (1983, p. 432). He continues:

[P]ainting teaches me the splendor of color and the expression of form, and, as I see many pictures and higher genius in the art, I see the boundless opulence of the pencil, the indifferency in which the artist stands free to choose out of the possible forms. If he can draw every thing, why draw any thing? And then is my opened to the eternal picture which nature paints in the streets with moving men and children, beggars, and fine ladies, draped in red, and green, and blue, and gray; long-haired, grizzled, white-faced, black-faced, wrinkled, giant, dwarf, expanded, elfish, -capped and based by heaven, earth, and sea (ibid., p. 434).

Poetry without Calculation

To look at the world with vulnerability, to be receptive to its beauty and its truth, to approach nature with humility, perhaps it is necessary that we do not always try to fit what we are seeing into logical theories, or to try to measure it and calculate it like scientists do when they perform experiments. Perhaps it is not sufficient to always take a detached perspective, trying to prevent our judgments from being distorted by our emotions or subjective bias, looking at everything objectively, as if from a distance (cf. Dustin & Zielger, 2005, p. 171). Is it necessary to sometimes observe the world close-up, emotionally, connecting what you see to your past experiences, focusing on sense-experiences, without deliberately theorizing, measuring, or calculating?

Heidegger writes that some artworks can help us to better know the truth about what they represent; for example, he claims that one of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, Shoes (1886), lets us know the truth, not only about peasant shoes, but also about many different kinds of equipment like jugs, axes, and other tools people use (1971, p. 35; cf. 27-36). Heidegger writes: “Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its being” (ibid., p. 35). I would like to think that Nastja’s work can also help us to see the world in such a way that everything in it, like horses, smart phones, and icebergs, are better able to reveal themselves to us.

If art can let us know the truth about the world around us, it seems obvious that it frequently does so without relying on calculative reasoning or theorizing. We can come to better know the truth about equipment, like shoes, by engaging with Van Gogh’s painting, which does not – at least in any relevant way – engage in theorizing, in itself. It is not just visual art that has the power to help us know the truth without relying on theory. Some poems, too, can help us to better know the truth about their subjects without the kind of theorizing we might see in a philosophy paper, and without the measurements and calculations we see in many scientific studies (cf. Heidegger, 1971, pp. 45-46; cf. Donohoe, pp 263-265). A poem, just by providing a beautiful, well-phrased description, can help us to know more about the world around us (cf. Heidegger, 1971, pp. 36-37). Heidegger contends that when we rely only on calculative reasoning to acquire knowledge, we lose some of the truth. For example, if we try to fully understand the heaviness of a stone, “by placing the stone on a balance, we merely bring the heaviness into the form of a calculated weight. This perhaps very precise determination of the stone remains a number, but the weight’s burden has escaped us” (ibid., p. 45). There is some truth about the stone, and its weight, that we can better know if we observe it artistically and poetically, rather than just through calculating and measurement. Likewise, Heidegger writes about color: “Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone” (ibid.). If we only know color by measuring it, and never observe it with an artist’s or poet’s eye, then we will not know the full truth about it.

Heidegger associates calculative-thinking with a specific way of seeing the world, namely the “mode of revealing” that he calls “technology” (1977, pp. 13, 21, 23, 26 & 48; cf. Donohoe, 2014, p. 263). In contrast, a work of art can have the power to provide, as Janet Donohoe puts it, an “opening of a place for thinking, a place that is non-calculative and allows for non-calculative thought” (2014, p. 263). Perhaps this is how artworks help their audiences to recognize the way they typically see the world – that they have embraced the “mode of revealing” called technology (Heidegger, 1977, p. 13) – and to realize that there are other ways they could see the world, instead. Perhaps this is what enables works of art, like Nastja’s, to help us know the truth of the world that we would otherwise miss. Nastja’s work gives a sense of a different way of seeing nature – with vulnerability, humility, and a poetic eye. Perhaps this kind of vulnerable-seeing requires, in part, being vulnerable to the truth that cannot be known through calculation – that the earth “shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained” (Heidegger, 1971, p. 46).

We should not think that theorizing, analyzing, calculating, measuring, or scientific studies are bad! Far from it. They are vastly important too, and without approaching the world these ways, we could not arrive at much knowledge of the world, either. Nonetheless, an essay that employed only analytic or calculative reasoning would likely miss something. To come to know the truth about something, it can be helpful to appeal to poetry, art, and the kinds of non-discursive thinking they encourage in addition to theory and calculation.
Theoretical reflections are useful, as is measurement and calculation, but it can also be useful to sometimes stop and instead engage with artworks on their own terms, and to read descriptions of the world that are not analytic or theoretical – descriptions of sense-experiences that do not analyze those experiences – descriptions that connect those sense experiences with emotion and with personal memories, and that are utterly-subjective and personal, rather than at all objective.

In some cases, an author might, in his attempt to approach his subject holistically, write an essay with some sections that engage with theory and others that are entirely non-analytic and are only descriptive and subjective. The descriptive sections might read like bad poetry, even if they are written in prose – sure – but they might nonetheless allow their subjects to reveal themselves and be known in ways that theory could not, on its own.

Nastja and Environmental Decline

Many of Nastja’s projects – not just For Those Yet To Be – engage with narratives of environmental decline, which describe the negative ways that humans have affected the natural world over time. Even 6 Months Without, which more directly concerns our use of technology, seems to respond to narratives like this. In an interview about 6 Months Without, Nastja describes the “environmental damage that technology causes” and “the contribution of the Internet on climate crises” (Rönkkö, 2019B). She adds: “The annual carbon footprint of the Internet is at least the same or bigger than all the flights of the world combined in a year” (ibid.). So, 6 Months Without, and Nastja’s remarks about it, challenge us to consider the impact that our use of the Internet has on the natural world (cf. De Wachter, 2019, p. 41). Nastja says: “I feel like we talk a lot about how bad eating meat or flying is but nobody really wants to talk about how bad watching YouTube videos or binging on Netflix is for the environment. It’s almost like the taboo of our times” (Rönkkö, 2019B).

More generally, 6 Months Without responds to humans’ use of modern technology, and – as Andrew R. Murphy points out – narratives of environmental decline also tend to take a cautious attitude toward the ubiquitous role of technology in our lives (2003, p. 91). Philosophers have worried that, with the rise of modern technology, humans might also have come to see the natural world differently, as a disconnected resource that could be used, exploited, and damaged for our own personal gain (cf. Murphy, 2003, pp. 91-92).

As I have considered Nastja’s work, I have focused on the ways it makes me reflect on how I currently see the world, and on how I might come to see it, instead. I take one of the “big questions” posed by Nastja’s work to be: How should we see and engage with one another and the world, in light of the worry of environmental decline?

As previously suggested, in Take Me Anywhere, Nastja demonstrates how we might see nature with reverence, respect, humility, and accommodation, rather than just as a tool we can use for our own ends. Perhaps, in viewing Nastja’s artwork, some of her audience might become better able to treat nature that way, themselves (cf. Paden, 1992, p. 251). Might this be the best way to see nature, in light of the risk of environmental decline? Nin Kirkham suggests that if we come to see nature as a tool or resource, we might be more likely to exploit it for our own use (Kirkham, 2016, p. 107; cf. Paden, 1992, pp. 242-243). Perhaps, by using Take Me Anywhere as a guide for how to see nature, we might come to treat the natural world better, too. 6 Months Without can prompt us to consider the ways in which our way of seeing the world indirectly relates to the technological devices we use regularly. Perhaps, in light of how humans’ current usage of technology impacts nature, it might be better for us to see our devices as less central, and to consider other ways of connecting with each other. Finally and most directly, For Those Yet To Be directly addresses environmental decline, and the way we might see the world with vulnerability, intelligence, and emotion.

Can artworks help us to become aware of the way we typically see the world, and help us to understand that there might be better alternatives? As noted previously, Heidegger considers technology to be a “mode of revealing” (1977, p. 13) – a way of seeing the world in which everything is revealed as standing-reserve, or as a resource or took for us to use (ibid., p. 20; Kirkahm, 2016, p. 107). Heidegger further thinks that this is the way that many people have come to typically see the world. But Heidegger contends that other modes of revealing are also possible; there are other ways to see the world. Perhaps we will never actually change how we fundamentally see the world, but even if we do not, perhaps artwork could help us to become aware of how we currently see, reflect on our current mode of seeing, and think about how we might see differently (ibid., pp. 31-35; cf. Kirkham, 2016, pp. 111). Perhaps – maybe – artworks can help us to recognize that the world could be seen in a different light. Perhaps, instead of seeing everything as standing reserve, it would be possible to see it poetically, as it actually is in truth, instead. “Could it be that the fine arts are called to poetic revealing?” (Heidegger, 1977, p. 35). Perhaps, in light of environmental decline, and all of our fears about the future of our world and how humans are impacting it, this is part of what we need to do to live most successfully in response to fear – to reflect on how we currently see the world, and to ask how we might see it and respond to it differently – poetically – artistically.

Maybe there are radically different ways to see a horse and respond to it. What would it mean to ride a horse, seeing the world so differently? Maybe, when we typically ride a horse, we are, in some ways, blind to it – seeing it only certain ways, and not really seeing it, on its own terms, at all. Maybe there are other ways both to see and to ride a horse.

Think of seeing a horse.

Notes

1 For more on the role of the participants in Nastja’s projects, see my other articles: Corsa, 2019A and Corsa, 2019B.

2 This paragraph was indirectly influenced by a presentation given by one of my students, Pratima Thami, in which she reflected on our course discussion about the notion of purpose.

3 For excellent reflections of what it means to practice seeing, and the relation between contemplative seeing and art, see: Dustin & Ziegler, 2005.

References

Corsa, A.J. (2019A). Philosophy of digital art as collaboration with an emphasis on the work of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner. Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, 19, retrieved from: <https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/019.e01>

Corsa, A.J. (2019B). LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, digital remix, and group authorship. The British Journal of Aesthetics, retrieved from: <https://doi.org/10.1093/aesthj/ayz025>

Donohoe, J. (2008). The place of tradition: Heidegger and Bejamin on technology and art. The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 39(3), 260-274.

Dustin, C.A. & Ziegler, J.E. (2005). Practicing Mortality: Art, Philosophy, and Contemplative Seeing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Emerson, R.W. (1983). Art. In J. Porte (Ed.), Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures (pp. 431-440). New York: The Library of America.

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Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology. In M. Heidegger, The question concerning technology and other essays (W. Lovitt, Trans.) (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Kirkham, N. (2016). Recognizing our place in the world. Environmental Ethics, 38(1), 97-119.

Lovitt, W. (1977). Introduction. In M. Heidegger, The question concerning technology and other essays (pp. xiii-xxxix). New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Murphy, A.R. (2003). Environmentalism, antimodernism, and the recurrent rhetoric of decline. Environmental Ethics, 25(1), 79-98.

Myllyharju, T. & Lehto-Vahtera, J. (2019). Foreword: Nobody will discover you if you stay at home – or is that how it was? In N.S. Rönkkö, Altered Breaths, Future Feelings [Exhibition catalogue] (pp. 8-9). Tampere, Finland: Tampere Art Museum.

Paden, R. (1992). Nature and morality. Environmental Ethics, 14(3), 239-251.

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De Wachter, E.M. (2017). Co Art: Artists On Creative Collaboration. Phaidon Press.

De Wachter, E.M. (2019). Memento vivere: The art of Nastja Säde Rönkkö. In N.S. Rönkkö, Altered Breaths, Future Feelings [Exhibition catalogue] (pp. 38-45). Tampere, Finland: Tampere Art Museum.

About Andrew J. Corsa

Andrew J. Corsa holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is an Assistant Professor in Lynn University’s Dialogues of Learning Program. Much of his published research focuses on Ethics and the Philosophy of Art.

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