Our Ecology of Experience: An Interview with Andrew Yang
By Miranda Trimmier
It would be easy to label Andrew Yang’s work as “art-science.” Yang holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, exhibits multimedia installations worldwide, publishes in journals like Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, and works as an Associate Professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. But he has a different way of talking about his practice: as “transdisciplinary” inquiry, an open-ended and embodied process of mapping the “ever-changing connections between the theories, things and creatures . . . teem[ing] within our ecology of experience.”
What does that look like, exactly? In his exhibit “Makeshift Geologies (an Anthroposcene)” rocks and trash collected on a walk in the Monserrat mountains sit side-by-side with collaged drawings of stones, a “collection” that asks after the interplay between art and wilderness, represented and real. In “New Economies / Anachronistic Fruit” playful research and gallery performance propose a new economic-ecological niche for the Kentucky coffeetree in the post-industrial Chicago landscape. In “Flying Gardens of Maybe” Yang maps the “interruptions” that mark the interactions between birds, rats, skyscrapers, scientists, museums, and art audiences, looking for points of intervention and repair. And these are just his gallery projects. Yang also writes and edits essays and zines, delivers performative lectures, curates art shows and panels for science symposia, and spends time interrogating education and his own teaching practice.
Yang increasingly positions this work as a response to the Anthropocene. Part of the challenge of responding to the Anthropocene, he argues, is recognizing the way that overspecialized knowledge production is part of the problem. Last fall I sat down with Yang to discuss his work. We talked about art, science, and disciplinary boundaries, and why it’s so important to treat each critically in the face of mounting ecological, economic, and social damage.
Miranda Trimmier: You tend to get pegged as an art/science guy, but you resist the notion that those categories can be treated as a neat binary. How do you think about your work in relation to art and science?
Andrew Yang: Well, my first training is in science, in biology. Now that I’m doing more work that’s exhibited formally as art, people think—oh, your background is in science, you must be art/science. And many of my projects do draw on scientific research, but I resist that binary. Not only are there are so many kinds of art and so many kinds of science, but I also don’t really connect with much of the work I’ve seen that falls under the art/science umbrella.
Miranda Trimmier: In what ways?
Andrew Yang: There’s a tendency for art/science work to be primarily decorative or illustrative depictions of science. Art becomes the handmaiden to science, just a medium through which the science content can be effectively communicated. Then art has to deal with the further stricture of keeping fidelity to the scientific idea. So basically, you become an illustrator.
And I don’t want to reject all that—it’s an important practice. But most people who are trained as artists don’t want to just be given a job to execute. They don’t want their creativity to be simply instrumentalized. Because that’s more of a design practice, finding visual solutions to a problem. The artist’s job isn’t to find solutions; in a sense, it’s to find problems.
Andrew Yang: To be an epistemologist and open things up. That said, when teaching I sometimes see students doing art related to scientific discovery that does stray too far from the idea, in a way that doesn’t benefit the art or the idea. There’s the loosest connection possible; the artwork doesn’t make intimate contact with the concept. And in those cases, I’ll think, some scientists worked really hard to come up with that concept, so can you engage it in a way that’s more substantive?
Still, I flip-flop on the notion that artists should be beholden to the way science constructs a theory. You have to have creative liberty to make what art historian Michael Corris calls a “productive misreading.” As an artist, that is an important part of what you can do.
Natural history is the framing I sometimes use for my own work. What I try to do in adopting the framework of natural history is to avoid an easy dichotomy of art or of science as set professional disciplines, to capture something of the attitude before the Enlightenment period that split them into two. I once had a conversation with the artist Mark Dion where I was worrying about whether my work reads too much as art or as science. He said, “You know, I don’t really think in terms of whether it’s art or it’s science—I just think about whether it’s interesting.” There’s something very useful in that.
At this historical moment, in the moment some call the Anthropocene, we should place a premium on intellectual synthesis and not be overly committed to specialized forms of knowledge. The overspecialization of knowledge painted us into the corner that we’re in. We think that economy doesn’t connect to ecology, but of course these things do connect. And that’s why natural history makes sense now. You’ve got problems that defy and exceed what any one disciplinary view can make sense of. Those problems demand a more integrated approach, and a contemporary form of natural history might offer one. It can’t be the old natural history, of course: European men colonizing the world and collecting specimens as part of extractive empire building.
Miranda Trimmier: I want to hear more about that, but I’ve got a few other questions first.
You edited a publication called the Anthropozine, which asks different thinkers to talk about their role in the Anthropocene. In it, Olivier Hamant, a biologist, says he sees his role as an analogist. I thought that was super interesting. Elsewhere, you write about the way art that engages science often gets accused of trading in bad metaphors. I think it’s easy to negate the way metaphor is important to science.
Andrew Yang: In this case, I think Olivier’s using the notion of analogy to talk about translating his scientific work into other cultural spheres. But, more broadly, yeah: scientists are all analogists. Science is a comparative method, and analogy is the fundament of scientific understanding. The power of analogy allows you to extend your imagination so you can predict, propose, and speculate. It sets a crucial framework for expectation. But analogy can also get reified into metaphor. You often hear people say, “The brain is a computer,” but it’s not a computer at all. Yes, brains have been used as models to build computers and computers are used to model the working of brains, but there are fundamental differences. When you start taking the analogy for a metaphor, then you take a very reductive attitude towards what it means to intervene in someone’s mind—that the mind is just the brain, and so this or that pharmaceutical must be able to “reprogram” the brain by just changing the flow of information.
Miranda Trimmier: And still art is treated as the realm of bad metaphor…
Andrew Yang: This gets me thinking in a slightly different direction, too, about the material side of scientific work. In the lab, scientists manipulate tissue or objects as specimens. You maintain subject/object distance, and your research is always formalized by protocol. On one level, that has to do with health and safety and the standardization of the experiment. But there’s also something psychological that’s happening.
Miranda Trimmier: The act of engaging with something as a research object is creating the scientist as distanced expert.
Andrew Yang: The procedures are disciplining you. In my own experience as a biochemistry student, it was a kind of somatic training. That training teaches you to keep a certain psychological and cognitive distance.
Three years ago, I attended the Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium. Someone on the organizing committee had the idea, “Well, let’s have an art interface session.” They Googled art and science and found me and asked me to help them plan an art-science session that they could slot alongside the sessions on near-earth objects and biomedical materials and invasive species. The main speaker I invited was Natalie Jeremijenko, an artist and designer. So, Natalie gives her talk and sits down and, while other people are giving their talks, she’s typing away at her computer. I think a lot of people assumed she wasn’t paying attention. The biomedical people are talking about this new tissue they’ve invented that’s not human tissue but that can replace it. When it comes time for the question-and-answer portion, everyone’s asking all these technical questions, and Natalie raises her hand and asks, “Have you ever eaten it?” And they’re like, “Excuse me?” There was just dead silence. It was a really interesting moment of seeing how an artist or designer would approach the materiality of that tissue. It violates almost everything scientists do these days, keeping scientific specimens at an objective distance.
Although that’s not true of all scientific traditions. When I did my training in ecology and evolution, I knew certain faculty who’d say, always eat your study organisms.
Miranda Trimmier: Really?!
Andrew Yang: Yeah. Whether you were studying lizards or birds, they thought you should get to know that creature as intimately as possible. There’s an example of the natural historical spirit.
Miranda Trimmier: In the Anthropozine, you talk not just to “artists” and “scientists” but to physicists, biologists, cultural theorists, architects, filmmakers, all sorts of practitioners. You write a lot about interdisciplinarity, a term you resist. How does the question of interdisciplinarity speak to the conversation we’ve been having? What does it have to do with natural history? And what does it have to do with the Anthropocene?
Andrew Yang: Institutionally speaking, I think that interdisciplinarity and the art/science projects that fall under its banner are usually problematic. Interdisciplinarity is often used as a way to reinforce disciplinary boundaries, not cross them. Because you say inter-, and it’s like an interstate highway: there’s transit between the states, but the borders between them are legitimized. There’s no additional questioning about whether those boundaries make sense and what alternatives exist.
Again, for me, that’s where natural history comes in. Natural history doesn’t accept any discipline on its own terms. And that connects to my interest in the Anthropocene, because the problem of the Anthropocene exceeds any one discipline’s ability to explain or respond. Of course, that means there’s a lot of disagreement about how to define the Anthropocene and how best to collaborate in the face of it, which is productive for testing exactly how a disciplinary perspective makes sense or not. Bernd Scherer, the director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, has said that the Anthropocene is interesting and meaningful because it’s undecided.
Miranda Trimmier: And it’s politically important how it gets decided, whether the Anthropocene is defined in a way that naturalizes the problematic systems of thinking that caused it, or… doesn’t.
Andrew Yang: It’s so problematic, and so rich. It foregrounds all the things—methodologically, metaphorically, linguistically, politically—we care about that are usually treated as the concerns of different disciplines. That’s a policy issue, that’s a natural resources issue, that’s a pure biology issue, that’s a rhetorical issue. In the Anthropocene, all these issues come together in one place. You can’t disentangle them. So there’s the opportunity. The Anthropocene is an integrated planetary problem that points to the fact that our specialized ways of approaching knowledge have been part of the problem. You can’t solve the problem with the same tool you created it with. You need a different tool.
Miranda Trimmier: I was struck by your piece, “What’s (the) Matter.” It’s a poem drawn on the wall of a gallery, and it references different sorts of matter: rocks, plants, animals, people. There’s anti-matter and grey matter and family matter, and then, in the middle, Black Lives Matter. It’s one of the most overtly activist references I’ve seen in your work. What does Black Lives Matter—or indigenous rights movements, or Fight for 15—have to do with your work on natural history?
Andrew Yang: Well, that poem is one piece of a whole exhibition. The exhibition also includes a molecular portrait of my daughter, an arrangement of her atoms reconstituted in everyday substances: canola oil, water, baking powder, rock candy. There’s a portrait of my partner holding a lava rock which is next to a portrait of the placenta that she and my daughter created together. There are three tables with displays of real rocks, fake rocks, trash, carved objects. And then you’ve got the text and all the different forms of matter. In part, the poem is just simple language play. You matter, dark matter.
Miranda Trimmier: Sure. And a central impulse in your work is to blur the lines between “nature” and “culture,” nature and human. A rock is matter, and so is your daughter. But when you say Black Lives Matter, you’re asking for a more complicated definition of culture, moving beyond universal descriptions of human experience. You’re acknowledging social inequality.
Andrew Yang: I was trying to acknowledge what was happening then, in the summer of 2016. With the fight against police brutality so active and visible, not referencing Black Lives Matter in a piece called “What’s (the) Matter” would have been a kind of violence through omission, which is how so much of the systematic racism and inequality in our culture operates. The poem includes the lines “we matter” and “you matter,” but including Black Lives Matter is a small attempt to move beyond those generic categories, addressing the specific experiences of people in a specific place in time. One of the major problems with the Anthropocene is that “anthropos” root—the generalizing we, which can be so homogenizing and erasing. Violence against black bodies and people of color in general has been a defining feature of the Anthropocene—slave labor and colonization have beenengines of the extractive economic growth that has changed the face of the planet. In that way, Black Lives Matter isn’t only specific to America right now, it is a part of ongoing global struggles against racist oppression and the rampant forms of capitalism that profit from it.
“What’s (the) Matter” was a way for me to think about value and values. When someone or something is treated as pure matter they’re usually being valued as an economic commodity and so can be treated poorly, polluted, disposed of easily. I want to explore other, potentially more sustainable ways of expressing value and care. If matter and the material world mattered to us more, then the Anthropocene might take a different trajectory.
Miranda Trimmier: I want to return to your earlier comment on the connection between natural history and colonialism. What do you do with that connection? How do you think about the ways natural historical practices became entwined with colonial systems of thought and practice?
Andrew Yang: Good question. I’m not entirely sure that it will make sense for me to frame my work that way forever. Do I want to associate my work around the Anthropocene with a history that is so European, so colonial? I’m not sure. I also know that there’s a criminality running through all the West’s best practices and ideas. The question is, can you repurpose what’s meaningful about those practices and ideas? You have to acknowledge the violence of Western history, but does it define everything? I’m wary of trying to find a niche of thought or identity that’s pure or outside that history. You can get stuck worrying about how you name things and not how you do things. Obviously, they’re connected. But if you attempt to reject everything about the past, you end up rejecting the future as well.
Still, natural history might come with too much baggage. But I do want to keep the insights it provides into the ways we talk about human history. Natural history challenges the idea that human history is separate from nature—that human history is just the documentation of the willful choices humans have made. In the Anthropocene, agency must extend beyond the neoliberal individual. Individual agency is not enough. You have to leverage more collective notions of agency. That might involve acknowledging the agency of other species, or of objects—the “vibrant matter” that Jane Bennett talks about. Or this: recently, 21 children filed a lawsuit against the U.S. federal government, asserting their agency and challenging the short-sightedness of adults. They argue that their constitutional rights to life and liberty are being violated through inadequate climate change policies that endanger their future.
So maybe it’s about agency distributed across time, too, acknowledging that material reality extends beyond our individual lives to all future life. We’re so obsessed with the now, the contemporary, the innovative. What happens when we put ourselves in Deep Time, thinking not just about what someone did yesterday or in the last generation, but where we are in the last 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history? It’s remarkably humbling and amazing and scary. We’re so small, and look at what a huge impact we’ve had in such a short time. By framing the past within a Deep Time context, you open up the future in a different way. Usually we don’t think more than ten or 20 years in advance.
Miranda Trimmier: In the Anthropozine, you asked contributors what they would say to people 100 years from now. A lot of people didn’t know how to respond.
Andrew Yang: It was disappointing to hear how many people said, “I’m sorry.” That felt defeatist, and it made me worry about what we’re saying to people today. I was just at a talk by a group called Conceivable Future. Conceivable Future thinks about reproductive sovereignty amidst climate change. And in the discussion afterwards, someone in the audience was describing teaching their young child about extinction in the most apocalyptic, dire terms. And I thought, well, your child does need to learn about extinction, but that future catastrophe you’re preparing them for? People are living it every day in Bangladesh. This sort of thinking can end up reinforcing a really Northern view, one that worries about future catastrophes while neglecting a reality where, in terms of economic and social justice, these catastrophes have been happening to other people forever.
Miranda Trimmier: Leanne Simpson says, “It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along.”
Andrew Yang: Exactly. A fixation on the future, whether utopian or dystopian, can obscure the conditions of the present.
Miranda Trimmier: What’s next in your work?
Andrew Yang: To be honest, I don’t know. There are certain art projects I have in mind, but right now I find myself grappling with what it means to work in academia and to be an educator. I’m not sure if it makes sense to teach the things I’m teaching in a three-credit, one-semester course. Those classes are like appetizers. You don’t think about a subject long enough to get somewhere really new. I also don’t know how to think about teaching in a place that, because of cost, so few people get to access. And I feel physically and materially disengaged. The more I teach classes that rely on online means and materials, the more I want to just build sand dunes. I did that for a recent exhibition.
So I’m asking myself what education and learning should look like in the Anthropocene, which has implications for my art practice. And I am feeling kind of lost. Instead of pushing that feeling away, I’m trying to learn as much as I can from it.
Miranda Trimmier is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona and a contributing editor at The New Inquiry. Her work has appeared in The New Inquiry, The Point, Full Stop, and Bookforum. Header photo — seed archive, another view (seed archive as the maquette of the “White City” and its dangerous shine) — from Andrew Yang’s “Flying Gardens of Maybe” (2012-). Image courtesy Andrew Yang.