Dinosaurs, Cyborgs, and Rock Sounds: Reflections on Multinatural Histories Exhibit, Harvard Museum of Natural Science

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a lecture by PhD student and co-curator Olivier Surel (Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense, Philosophie) of the Multinatural Histories exhibit on Thursday (10/10/13) and the one night only exhibit on Saturday (10/12/13). The exhibit itself brought together a number of artists who explore mediums of video, music and sound, photography, material culture, and performance. The idea behind the exhibit was to dismantle contemporary assumptions about taxonomic hierarchies about how nature is captured and displayed in a museum setting. The curator team, who also includes Marcus Owens, Courtnay Cain Saunders, and Rachel Schneider, took as their theoretical departure the work of Eduardo Vivieros de Castro and Bruno Latour, whose works seek to reconceptualize how notions of the modern world have been premised on the separation of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and subject and object. Without getting too theoretical here, the very idea of multiculturalism (an idea that the United States and many other nations proclaim as a kind cure to xenophobia), that there can be many cultures in one place, is premised on there being a single nature, through which each culture acts as part of the multitude. Cultures change, but nature is the constant. Flipping the idea around, from a multinatural perspective the material world shares a “universal culture of life and vitality”. Multinaturalism rejects the idea that there is a single nature ‘out there’ but in fact that humans, material objects, non-human animals, and even ideas are capable and do inhabit multiple worlds with each other in various configurations and assemblages, all based in the culture of life. Key questions include who and what have and give voice to actions and how different things, people, and objects come together at various points to make possible different worlds.

The magic of the exhibit is that each artist used one room – arthropods or glass flowers, for example – and placed or performed their work on top of, in front of, around, the extant exhibitions. The result was an at times chaotic re-imagining of the ‘proper’ order of a curated museum setting. Massive cretaceous era dinosaur skeletons, silent and static, were juxtaposed with rapid abstract video pieces displayed on iPads.

Two other notable examples include first the Harvard minerals collection room  in which massive speakers were set about the room playing the sounds of rocks hitting each other and being rubbed together. The effect was to transform, again, silence into an affront to the senses. Thus an experiential temporality was infused in the room, keeping my focus on the here and now of the space, and to remind me that, like the taxidermic animals down the hall, these minerals too were and indeed are capable of movement and sound, whose biographies can be told, in essence in their own tongue. Second, in the New England Floura and Fauna room were strewn about various pieces of American kitsch – photographs, a flag, trinkets, toys, etc. But (and this is my favorite part of the exhibit), a masked being wearing a purple dress walked slowly around the room, moving uncomfortably close to visitors and simply repeated the question “Where is my land?” despite anyone’s attempt to answer or move away. The result was a powerful charge against what we consider “our space”, whether in New England, or a museum hall, or our personal sense of space. The robotic looking mask and slow movements reminded me of Donna Haraway’s 1985 piece “The Cyborg Manifesto” in that this being had no “land”, no where it belonged yet is now a part of the landscape we co-inhabit. The question for Haraway is who would be able to take this detached position, this new being, and claim it or create new space for it, hopefully in the name of more open access to ways of being in the world.

Overall, I’d say the exhibit was a great success, especially for a first-try of re-imagining curatorial practices through a multinatural lens. I spoke briefly with Surel after the exhibit closed and am pleased to hear they have plans to expand this exhibit in New York in the future.  – Adam GImage

Photo: Ryan Collins

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