Assembling the Cosmopublic: Art Intelligence and Object-Oriented Citizenship

Becher's Industrial Facade by Liu Yang
Hai Ren rethinks the creative city away from its anthropocentricism and toward a nonhuman art intelligence

Climate change, pandemics, and other global threats have forced humankind to confront its own inevitable extinction – and critically, these problems involve not merely humans but also nonhuman beings. The United Nations calls upon cities around the world to make “culture” and “creativity” a driving force to face these challenges through a globally shared and connected creative city network.1Uneso Creative Cities Network. Yet governmental, economic, and technological solutions based on this framework privilege human beings over nonhuman beings to the detriment of both.

To overcome the anthropocentricism of the creative city paradigm, we must rethink the concepts of the cosmopolis and its public culture from an object-oriented perspective. The diverse urban objects in a cosmopolis can be categorized as three kinds, defined by either 1) physical properties (e.g., infrastructures), 2) human experiences, or 3) qualities that escape human experience or consciousness. Each category suggests a different approach: science, humanities, and art. I focus on art and propose the concept of “art intelligence” to highlight how artwork shapes a postanthropocentric public: “the cosmopublic.” Contemporary Chinese art practices that mediate between the built environment and the natural landscape are salient examples that envision, embody, and advance this new mode of urban citizenship.

Art Intelligence

My understanding of a postanthropocentric cosmopolis is inspired by the work of Graham Harman and Martin Heidegger. Harman defines objects – whether real, fictional, natural, artificial, human or non-human – as autonomous entities, which are divided into real and sensual kinds and qualities.2Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology (Penguin, 2018).  A key insight is that objects cannot be directly experienced by humans or directly enter into human consciousness. Thus aesthetics serves as “the general theory of how objects differ from their own qualities,” and art as a tool for engaging “an explicit tension between hidden real objects and their palpable sensual qualities.”3Graham Harman, Art and Objects (Polity, 2019), xii, 24.

In this essay, I extend Harman’s aesthetic theory of art to examine the role of art in a postanthropocentric cosmopolis where artists grapple with the disconnection between human objects, built objects, and the natural objects within the contemporary city.4In her analysis of minimalist treatments of the human merely as another object, Katherine Behar uses “nonanthropocentrism” to refers to the ways in which the human object is disconnected from the human subject’s “ideology, style, or a particular set of historical conditions” (“Arbitrary Objects” in And Another Thing. Ed. Katherine Behar and Emmy Mikelson. Punctum Books, 2016, p. 30). Different from her critique of anthropocentrism, my use of the term “postanthropocentric” intends to highlight the relevance of the politics of subjectivity.

I propose “art intelligence” as a cosmotechnics, a technology for engaging diverse cosmological (including urban) objects, whether human, nonhuman, animate or inanimate. Art intelligence explores art’s technical capacity for addressing the “brokenness” of an object. According to Heidegger, an object has a two-fold relation to the human. When humans recognize an object as a piece of equipment, they refer to the object as a tool. Yet this understanding alienates humans from the quality of the object-in-itself. For example, a hammer as an object is both a tool and an object-in-itself, but only a broken hammer can make humans aware of its status as an object-in-itself.5Harman clarifies the two-fold relation in Tool-Being (Open Court, 2002). Thus an object’s recognizable brokenness – its sensual quality – alerts humans to their lack of direct access to the real quality of an object. The brokenness of an object – in this case, a disjointed urban landscape – is a key problem of art intelligence.

The Yangdeng Art Collective, a major socially engaged art collective in China,6Hai Ren, “Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary Art” (In Socially Engaged Art in Southwest China: Yangdeng Art Cooperative, 2012-2017. Ed. Jiao Xingtao and Wang Zhiyun. Chongqing Publishing Group), 20-29. offers a good example of how art intelligence works. The collective undertook a series of public art events at Yangdeng (a small township south of Chongqing) in the summer of 2018. Among them is an interactive installation work by Yan Yipeng in the evening of August 25.7For a detailed discussion of this and other art examples, see Hai Ren, “What is Art Intelligence?” (in Chinese) (Contemporary Artists, 2018, no 5), 16-19. A nine-meter long scroll of drawing was co-created on site by a total of twenty people (including Yan, residents, tourists, and other artists).

Three sections of the drawing “Scenes along the Yangdeng River” (2018) by Yan Yipeng

But the center piece was the animated video “Scenes along the Yangdeng River” (Yangdeng heshang tu). The way in which the video was shown to the spectators – projected onto a section of the Yangdeng River, just outside the Xiaochun Hall, an art space created by the local resident and artist Xie Xiaochun – produced a cosmological scene, or rather, a cosmological assembly participated by artworks (drawings at various stages, animated video and music, and calligraphs), artists, residents, tourists, nonhuman animals, and other objects (river, stones). Despite being associated with different, even incommensurable, temporalities (human times, species times, and velocities caused by forces of gravity), their gathering nevertheless presented them as contemporaries or equals in the same space of the cosmological assembly. The cosmological sense of contemporaneity was enabled the artistic technics that embraced a diverse range of artistic media, that is, cosmological media.

Screening of the video “Scenes along the Yangdeng River” (2018) by Yan Yipeng

By engaging the brokenness of objects in the cosmopolis, whether they are human, nonhuman, animate, or inanimate, art intelligence produces a realism that connects the human world to a universe of which humans are only parts. In art intelligence, the work of art is a generative techne or technics and the artist an artisan who participates in the realization of his or her creative potential. As Heidegger puts, art is a method of revealing and unconcealing the eluded or withdrawn, bringing forth truth: the real.8Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (in his Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1-56. This is also how I use the word “art.” In a cosmopolis, art intelligence vicariously connects the human world to the universe behind it. Art intelligence may deploy any artistic media in a creative or generative work that treats all beings of the universe – including human subjects as objects – as contemporary and equal.

Environment-Oriented Art

To further illustrate the ways in which art engages with objects in the production of a postanthropocentric public in a cosmopolis, I focus on the Chengdu-based artists Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun, who have been undertaking research-based art projects since 2010. Among burgeoning socially engaged art projects in China since the 1990s,9Also see Meiqin Wang’s discussion of eight artists and their projects in Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China (Routledge, 2019). their work can be characterized as an environment-oriented art that significantly departs from conventional Chinese art practices. To highlight its cultural specificity, I use the term shanshui-oriented art to refer to their work. Shanshui in Chinese literally means “mountain and river” but is often translated as “landscape,” as in “landscape painting,” a traditional genre of Chinese art defined as the symbolic representation of the natural world, which embraces a totalizing vision of nature (rather than a particular scenery) for the sake of individual introspection.

Becoming concerned with environmental issues, contemporary Chinese artists have transformed this traditional form of painting. Shanshui becomes a powerful site for documenting environmental degradation and stimulating discussions about the exploitation of nature. Such artists as Qiu Zhijie, Liu Wei, Zhan Wang, Yao Lu, and Cai Guo-Qiang have used new iconographic techniques that blend traditional landscape imagery with contemporary images of built environments, industrialized zones, and polluted places. They have demonstrated a critical sense of shanshui in their engagements with environmental issues. This change, Elena Macrì argues, shows a shifting role of the shanshui painter: from conceiving landscape as a “highly symbolic representation of nature” to engaging shanshui as “a platform for critical thinking” or an arena for human action.10Elena Macrì, “Being, Becoming, Landscape” (Yishu 16, no. 1, 2017), 42. In the expanded field of the shanshui art, shanshui is more than a picture of a captured landscape.

Wang Nanming, “Rubbing Drought” (2007)

It is in fact a visual representation of contemporary culture. Wang Nanming’s Rubbing Drought (2007), for example, uses the traditional Chinese scholar’s writing tools (ink and paper) to represent a particular kind of environment, cracked land. Ink patterns on rubbings and traces of drought in the cracked land are juxtaposed in the finished image to evoke a strong sense of disagreement between the human world and the nonhuman environment. Zhang Huan’s Family Tree (2000) regards the human body (the artist himself) as the object of ink writing.

Zhang Huan, “Family Tree” (2000)

Normally, when we write on something (e.g., paper), our bodily experience, despite being an integral part of the writing process, withdraws from our conscious awareness. This work highlights an inseparable connection between writing and the body’s experience.

The artwork of Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun goes further. Their art is shanshui-oriented art in the sense that shanshui is no longer a visual element for representation; rather, the environment as an object-in-itself interacts with artmaking. While producing works of various forms (paintings, sculptures, photos, videos, performances, and architectures), environment-oriented art deploys art intelligence to enable the art of truth-revealing. In the shanshui art like Zhang Huan’s, the artist’s body is used as the main object of writing, and the bodily experience is defined as that which we understand our body in relation to the world, a continuation of self and the world in flux. The artist’s body moves through the universe of shanshui itself. Walking is purposeful, but not in the manner of a pilgrimage. When Cao and Chen researched changes of the water ecosystem in Chengdu, the two artists walked 74.2 kilometers along the Jinma River, a branch of the Min River (a major branch of the Yangzi River). They walked with residents of the local Shuijingfang community to investigate changes of the urban landscape and historical memories. Inspired and affected by the walking experience, the retired resident Gong Suqing drew on her memories to produce a series of drawings that recapture fragments of history unavailable in mainstream narratives of the community within the city.

Gong Suqing, “Shuijingfang, Chengdu” (2015)

Shanshui-oriented art is a public art that assembles objects (real and sensual) in the name of shanshui to address the brokenness of a cosmopolitan city. In the case of Cao and Chen, the objects their work has assembled are diverse, including maintains, rivers, trees, water, humans, artifacts, streets, buildings, factories, shops, restaurants, villages, towns, museums, historic sites, artists, architects, social workers, art researchers, residents, migrants, and farmers. The brokenness of the City of Chengdu can be expressed in diverse issues such as memories (social, historical, and environmental), identities of urban residents (“new farmers” as in the Kunshan new district), environmental changes experienced by local communities, and epistemological issues about humanist and scientific knowledges.

Screen shot of the film “On the Edge of Mountains and Rivers” (2018)

The artwork “On the Edge of Mountains and Rivers” (Shanshui bianyuan) (2018) is a powerful example of how the shanshui-oriented art uses art intelligence to transform a cosmopolitan city into a cosmopolis. According to the artists, this work explores the “invisible reality of the city’s water system.” In the phrase “water system,” “water” designates “an ecological object,” and “system” signifies “an entangled territory between ecology and human society.”11Artists’ statement. One of their work sites is Shuitianping, a transitional area between the Chengdu Plain and the upper Min River mountainous region. Not only is this site located just outside the boundaries of the World Heritage site, the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project – which was built more than two-thousand years ago and is still in operation, but it is also excluded by the city’s master planned development zone. However, the Min River that supplies the entire city’s water passes through here. Thus, despite of its peripheral status in the city’s official environmental discourse, Shuitianping is central to the understanding of the city’s water system.

Their collaboration with local residents has generated an alternative way of knowing the environment as a cosmological object (real object). During their fieldwork, the artists met the Shuitianping resident Wang Yizhong, who voluntarily monitors the water levels of the Min River for the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. Scholars who studied precarity declined to work with Wang because they regarded him as a marginalized person but not a precarious one. Not being burdened by the production of knowledge, the artists did not hesitate to work with Wang. Their work reveals an impressive tree-growing story of Wang.

Wang Yizhong’s Black Stone

In 1998, Wang subcontracted 9.884 acres of mountainous land to grow trees. In the Spring of 1999, Wang found a black stone – with tree ring like patterns on its surface – on a slope near his house. Wang believed that the stone was an indication of an ancient forest there. The stone inspired Wang to grow a large forest. After twenty years, he has planted a total of 74,812 trees. Many fruit and nut trees (walnut, chestnut, and cherry), which have high monetary values, have been blended into the growing, marvelous forest. Their withdrawal from the market effectively enables them to exist as contemporaries of the humans in “an equal, unoccupied future … cosmological universe (artist’s statement).”

In learning from Wang, the artists were curious about the vibrancy of the black stone. A geologist evaluated the object and told them that the stone is not a tree fossil. This means that Wang’s understanding of an ancient forest is “false” in the rational sense of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, it is important to differentiate this rational sense of scientific knowledge from a practical sense of know-how knowledge. It is at the practical level that an ordinary stone like Wang’s becomes an actant in a cosmological assembly that incorporates both human and nonhuman participants. In environmental studies, scholars have devoted to the production of knowledge about environmental protection (e.g., the idea of the Anthropocene). To avoid both simple environmental idealism and overwhelming dependency on rational epistemology, as this artwork suggests, we need to take seriously the practical sense of how-know knowledge in order to recognize the agency of a nonhuman object as a participant in environmental protection.

The Cosmopublic

To conclude, I would like to discuss how the understanding of art’s capacities for recognizing nonhuman objects and bringing forth the real, which exists but is inaccessible by the human, contributes to a new model of citizenship that goes beyond the conventional cosmopolitan and anthropocentric meanings. In the conventional Greek context, the term “cosmopolis” combines two words – cosmos and polis – to mean “city of the world.” Its closely related term “cosmopolitanism” means “citizen of the world.”  “Cosmopolitanism” designates a model of citizenship based on an ethics of universal concern and respect for other people.12Kwame A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (W. W. Norton, 2006). But when “cosmopolitanism” and “cosmopolis” are used together, they generate a paradoxical mode of citizenship: A citizenship not fixed to a sense of belonging to a particular city becomes grounded within a particular city of a territorial state (e.g., a city-state). The conventional, global framework of cosmopolitanism has two major problems. First, many of the world’s urgent problems – such as ecological instabilities’ effects on global resources like water and agricultural goods – do not respect the borders of nation states. Second, conventional cosmopolitan inspirations and visions tend to be anthropocentric. Given this situation, the historian Prasenjit Duara is right when he calls for new ways of understanding cosmopolitanism.13Prasenjit Duara, “The Chinese World Order and Planetary Sustainability” (in Chinese Visions of World Order, ed. Ban Wang. Duke University Press, 2017), 65-83. Also see Peter Sloterdijk, The Aesthetic Imperative (Polity, 2017), 125. In the Chinese context, for example, “cosmopolitanism” is commonly translated as: shijie (“the world”),14David Pan, “Cosmopolitanism, Tianxia, and Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’” (Telos 180, Fall 2017), 31-32. tianxia (“all under the heaven”),15Ban Wang, “Introduction” (in Chinese Visions of World Order, ed. Ban Wang. Duke University Press, 2017). and quanqiu (the globe). 16This term was used by the Pompidou Center’s biennale Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence in Chengdu, November 1, 2018 – January 16, 2019. Based on these diverse meanings, Duara redefines cosmopolitanism as “the idea that all humans belong nonexclusively to a single community.”17Duara, “The Chinese World Order and Planetary Sustainability,” 67. Humans inhabit multiple communities defined by different criteria such as identity (e.g., location, nation, and religion), language, and art.

To extend Duara’s argument, I propose an object-oriented model of citizenship derived from object-oriented artistic practices and their intelligence. In a postanthropocentric, object-oriented cosmopolis, art is neither a marker of status nor a kind of knowledge; rather, it is a cosmotechnics for assembling diverse objects, whether human, nonhuman, animate or inanimate. As my discussion of environment-oriented art has shown, people and nonhuman beings come together to form a cosmopublic, beyond a traditional cosmopolitan sense of a body public. Like Bruno Latour’s notion of thing-based public18Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public” (in Making Things Public, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. MIT Press, 2005), 14-41. and Harman’s object-oriented public,19Graham Harman, Bruno Latour (Pluto Press, 2014). this new public is a group of actants who gather together to settle issues of concern. As in my example of the shanshui-oriented art, this new public is uniquely suited to addresses environmental degradation. Not only is this public a group of people (residents, artists, and scientists), but it also includes the participation of nonhuman objects (trees, the black stone, mountains, and rivers). Thus, I propose to call this object-oriented public “the cosmopublic,” an object-oriented mode of citizenship that applies equally to the human and the nonhuman beings, rediscovering the city as an objective reality rather than merely as a tool for living.


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