Multispecies Clouds: Curatorial Essay

2023.01.14 Saturday



Think now as if the forest's parts were clouds

meshing with each other, some dark, some

light, or lighter. The green mass has the name

duration: one tree replacing another and never

falling but of its own accord and in obedienceto

the common law.

Nothing despoiled,

nothing torn down, nothing cut in its very life,

leaving its blood over the jungle floor.

Clouds billowing but contained in the mass

although some, like balloons, could seem to take

off — if looked at long and hard enough.

Up there in the walls, on invisible paths,

leeches immeasurably patient below leaves,

bodies gyrating to warmth of mammal flesh

And, at the end, the forest closes in

on itself, and stops to admire itself, and

rests. Astounded at its own beauty

it gives assent to the planet

that it should continue, that it should

survive and its ark of creatures also.


Selected from Nathaniel Tarn's poem, Ins and

Outs of the Forest Rivers

01 Cloud


The indefinite shapes of clouds are often suspicious, even threatening, such as the dark cloud with lightning rolling in the sky or a cloud of smoke from the explosion of weapons and gunpowder. Their opaqueness forms an epistemological fog, hovering, volatile and inaccessible; at times, they reveal ominous "anthropomorphic" features, such as the mushroom cloud generated from a nuclear explosion. This "anthropomorphism" is no longer a nebulous imagination, but, as Karen Barad pointed out, there is a close connection between this cloud of emissive dust and the mushroom as a species. "But when the atom bomb exploded, the mushroom cloud that connected heaven and earth was a condensation of matters that were more than merely symbolic. When an atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom. Whether or not this story is historically accurate, it has been verified that mushrooms were found in the immediate area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the accident in 1986 and growing inside the reactor, on its walls."[1]

The mushrooms' eccentric and alchemically mysterious properties allow them to grow under extreme conditions and absorb the heterogeneous forces of their surroundings. Like nuclear explosions, matter, in both mushrooms and "clouds," appears to condense and rapidly change from one form to another, from dispersion to condensation, resulting in an "implosion." Barad further states, "When a nuclear bomb explodes, each radioactive bit of matter is an imploded diffraction pattern of spacetimemattering, a mushrooming of specific entangled possible histories."[2] In Cai Guo-Qiang's work Drawing for The Century with Mushroom Clouds: Project for the 20th Century (1995-1996), a reishi mushroom in juxtaposition with a mushroom cloud from a gunpowder explosion, made the artist keenly aware that other than the iconographic connection between such a life form and lifeless artificial object, they share deeper ties: a superposition of non-human life and human history, where the two generate each other on the most microscopic material scale.

If we consider the mushroom cloud a "species cloud," we would come to a baroque metaphor: species is a diffusive, superimposed, imploding material form. From the Amazon jungle to the Sahara Desert, from Chernobyl to Fukushima, clouds and mushrooms resonate on the particle level between the sky and the ground. For anthropologist Celia Lowe, species clouds should not be a one-to-one relationship: the aggregation, interaction, and transformation of a large number of species can also constitute a cloud. Like a "species multiplier", "multispecies clouds" brew ambiguous borders within them, in which species mix, mutate and regenerate, and thus acquire the forms of their uncertain future.


02 The Mycelia Person


"What if we were to think of the person, like the fungal mycelium, not as a blob but as a bundle of lines, or relations, along which life is lived? What then can we mean by ' environment' ?"[3]

According to Tim Ingold, we are all "The Mycelia Person."[4] This is another type of metaphor that attempts to counteract anthropocentric discourses such as "incarnation" or "embodiment" - that The Mycelia Person does not live in a so-called "body" or that this "body" is not uniquely humans, but in all bacteria, microbes, and parasites. At the same time, life does not consist of separate organisms carrying genetic instructions inside but a relational "meshwork" that is constantly fluid and emergent. This "meshwork" is like the dense vines or climbing plants in the rainforest, whose roots intertwine; there is no distinction between external and internal, self and other, but only the relational lines that continue to traverse the cracks and crevices for survival and movement. It represents the evolutionary trajectories of humans, plants, animals, fungi, and everything else when different species encounter and coexist, their tracks are bound to converge.

Like particular fabric, The Mycelia Person is constantly weaving with other life forms, metabolizing together and exchanging energy and information to the point of being indistinguishable from them. The topological nature of life does not harness itself within precise boundaries but sprawling into an amorphous "environment" - the fabric of which is the relational lines and trajectories that interfere with each other in the process of evolution, thereon entwining, knotting, and weaving. The Mycelia Person wanders on a winding path shaped by interspecies relations, moving through a fluid, integrated, mutated earth. This model is essentially different from the life devised by Heidegger, whose philosophical imagination suggests even if a human being lives together with other species, he still "inhabits" a distinct and unrelated world. Rather the actual situation is that the impetus of "Worlding" originates from the rolling life meshwork under the mycelium.

Although, there are still potential dangers, such as the unexpected advent of a Cthulhu-like virus. Global pandemics remind us that symbiotic relationships between species are often destroyed, primarily when one party seeks to proliferate and reproduce itself, and the other seeks to impose sanctions and control transmission. The virus comes from the deep time of the earth, like a wound from the distant past suddenly emerging in the present, creating a massive tear in human society. Yet as Anna Tsing stated, "No single project of world making wipes out all the others. All this matters because in the course of encounters, some kinds of living beings will die, some will dwindle, and others will flourish." 5 Perhaps The Mycelia Person must experience this traumatic weaving, or fractured becoming, in order to achieve openness and perpetuity in a continuous stretch and twist.


03 Sympoietics


"Suddenly they form a man: How is this worth taking thought of? They are transforming again in death: Should this perplex you?" [6]

"Santiago told me that the shaman turns into a tiger when he wants to be alone."[7]

In "The Owl," an ominous "owl" flies into the author Jia Yi's room and utters a philosophical lament. Its description of death is not fearful but a transformation of the soul, a process by which a person transforms into other grotesque life forms posthumously.

In contrast to the Confucian literatis' concealment of issues related to the soul, in the imagination of many indigenous people, the boundaries between humans and other species appear more open, and the mutual generation and transformation of humans and non-humans seem to be an ontological function built into the soul. For them, the soul is a nonverbal channel of communication with those non-human beings who do not share a common language.

In his study of the Runa people of the Amazon, anthropologist Eduardo Kohn emphasizes that humans and non-humans share a "spiritual" semiotic system that engenders a "new ecology of selves." "In this ecology of selves, to remain selves, all selves must recognize the soul-stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos. I've chosen the term soul blindness to describe the various debilitating forms of soul loss that result in an inability to be aware of and relate to other soul-possessing selves in this ecology of selves…Because in this ecology of selves, all selves have souls, soul blindness is not just a human problem; it is a cosmic one."[8]

It's apparent the above-mentioned is closely related to the concept of perspectivism pioneered by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. De Castro's vision of the Amazon rainforest is filled with fascinating possibilities of "equality" or "symmetry," "What to us is blood, is maize beer to the jaguar; what to the souls of the dead is a rotting corpse, to us is soaking manioc; what we see as a muddy waterhole, the tapirs see as a great ceremonial house."[9] Both Kohn and de Castro believe that the soul/subjectivity is free to travel and transform between human and non-human beings, a non-exclusive shamanic thinking in which the "personhood" is the "objecthood," the "subject" is the "object," and the "selves" is the "nonselves." This ecological "sympoietics" in fact subverts ethnography. Hence the "mind-body dualism" based on Western epistemology collapses here and is replaced by a multiverse model of animism. Moreover, the rainforest becomes a truly pluralistic world where all kinds of beings, including humans, meet, communicate and negotiate.


04 The Multitude, Solidarity, and Justice


"The swarms that we see emerging in the new network political organizations, in contrast, are composed of a multitude of different creative agents."[10]

Negri and Hardt' s discussion on the notion of the "multitude" cites the example of bees and termites, who discovered that members of these species communicate and collaborate while retaining their creativity. This phenomenon is grounded on a pluralistic and egalitarian political ecology, which on the one hand, has a tendency to decentralize, and on the other, catalyze a certain kind of collective intelligence. However, Negri and Hardt aimed to propose a new type of "revolutionary" model - a distributed, highly collaborative methodology that does not deprive the participants of their subjectivity. Other than its overtly "anthropocentric" tendency, we can still see itas a metaphor for interspecies relations: species' capacity as multitudes to establish particular forms of solidarity and mutual aid in the face of struggle and adversity.

A new form of protest emerged on social media in West Papua in 2018, with people posting content with the hashtags "I am a monkey" and "Monkeys unite against the colonizers!" accusing the Indonesian government of discriminatory policies and violence that have been perpetuating. No doubt, there is an implicit logic here: the same persecution, threats, and stigmatization of human life as that of the monkeys have led to the radical possibility of an inter-species alliance between the two. By embracing the image of the monkey, the indigenous people disrupt the hierarchical value of humans and non-humans and refuse to acknowledge the logic of the pairing of race and animal. Undoubtedly, this refusal resonates with Bénédicte Boisseron 's discourse on "entangled forms of oppression."[11]

As Sophie Chao points out, "Multispecies stories… foreground how human justice depends in turn on doing justice to the life-sustaining worlds of non-human beings-in our everyday practices of production and consumption, in global economic and political systems and in the law."[12] For this reason, we cannot "depoliticize" or "dehistoricize" the issue of multispecies. Both multispecies ethnography and pluralist ontology contain dimensions of "participation" and "practice" in which only in such dimensions can species and humans themselves be thoroughly "decolonized" and have the opportunity to create a new cosmology. In "Multispecies Clouds," we aim to reveal precisely the state of practice of species on the planet in their various guises and how they encounter, assist each other and form alliances in this process in resisting exploitation and detriments caused by capital, technology, or power.




[3] Tim Ingold, Between Science and Art: An Anthropological Odyssey.


[5] Anna Tsing, A multispecies ontological turn?

[6]Jia Yi, The Owl.

[7]Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man.

[8]Eduardo Kohn, HOW FORESTS THINK toward an anthropology beyond the human.

[9]Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.

[10]Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Multitude.

[11]Bénédicte Boisseron, Afro-Dog: Blackness and the Animal Question.




About the Curator

Yang Beichen

Dr. Yang Beichen is a researcher and a curator based in Beijing, China. He is the director of the Macalline Art Center (Beijing), and one of the members of the Thought Council at the Fondazione Prada (Milan, Venice).Currently teaching at the Central Academy of Drama, his research examines the agency and potentialities of the moving image in the context of contemporary technology and ecology, deploys media archaeology as a radical framework to excavate alternative modernities, and ultimately aims to re-interpretate history and geopolitics from a New Materialist standpoint. His curatorial practices grow out of and attest to his multidisciplinary academic approaches. Notable curatorial projects include “New Metallurgists” (Julia Stoschek Collection, Düsseldorf), “Micro-Era” (Kulturforum, Berlin), the Guangzhou Image Triennial 2021 "The Intermingling Flux" (Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou), “A MOON WRAPPED IN BROWN PAPER” (Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai) , etc. Between 2019 and 2021, he also led a three-year research project focusing on the art of moving image in China at the NCAF, for which he curated three research-based exhibitions: “Anti-Projection: Media Sculptures in Early Chinese Video Art”, “Embodied Mirror: Performances in Chinese Video Art”, and “Polyphonic Strategies: The Moving Image and its Expanded Field”. He has also contributed critical essays for the catalogues of the artists such as Cao Fei, Laure Prouvost, Omer Fast and HO Tzu Nyen, etc. His academic monograph “Film as Archive” will be published soon.


Macalline Art Center is a practice-oriented site focused on contemporary visual inventions. The Center engages with artists and art groups by building physical and online communities through events and research. The Center is guided by the working processes of artists, constantly re-defining and testing itself and renewing perceptual and cognitive systems in contemporary situations and contexts.