Texas Tech University

Aftermath: Environments of the Present*

Matt Hooley

* This essay was first published in the catalogue for the exhibition of Will Wilson's series Autoimmune Response. The exhibition was held at the Landmark Arts Gallery in the School of Art at Texas Tech University, in conjunction with the LSJE sponsored Art After Drought event.

"The series is about this post-apocalyptic Navajo man just trying to figure out what happened, why the world is so toxic, so uninhabitable." — Will Wilson


 

Aftermath is the long present of crisis. Crisis masquerades as an instant (the drop of a bomb, the rush of a flood) but it lives-on in the afterward, in the fallout. No matter when crisis happens, it lives-on in intense experiences of the present that feel like grief, uncertainty, pain, fatigue, boredom, impatience. Experiences of the present that are intense because of something that happened. Aftermath is a condition of the present refracted through the historical: it is what's happening while we figure out what happened.

Will Wilson's Auto Immune Response asks what happens in the aftermath. It's a series that insists that the present of crisis is not a genre. It's not a form of things happening, but a medium— what W.H. Auden calls poetry: "a way of happening. A mouth." [1] In images of aftermath, Auto Immune Response asks what it means to live-on in crisis? What does living-on say about crisis? What does crisis sound like?

In the context of Navajo people and history, environmental crisis is a function of settler colonialism, both as a political structure and a structure of political attention. In one sense the images of aftermath in Auto Immune Response are speculative. However, insofar as they invoke the violent collapse of social ecologies, they are also historical. Indigenous communities have lived in the aftermath of environmental crisis since settlers first appropriated Indigenous lands and resources. Events like Bosque Redondo, the Colorado River Compact, the Taylor Grazing Act, Livestock Reduction, and the Indian Mineral Leasing Act constellate a history of settler colonialism as ecological crisis. However, the way colonial history refashions these as events (not aftermath) indicates that the ecological crisis that is colonialism is also a crisis of political attention.

History disaggregated as U-235, Trinity, Church Rock, and Peabody obscures the long present of what Rob Nixon calls "slow violence": "violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction...typically not viewed as violence at all." [2] It's not that slow violences aren't chosen to be represented within colonial capitalism, it's that they can't be. Violence, here, is a matter of property and the proper: to be legible within colonial capitalism, it needs to violate a proper individual, resource, or species (species from specere "to look, to behold").

In Wilson's photographs, the event of crisis is not pictured. This is not an omission, but a way of showing that crisis is an effect of what Susan Sontag calls "colonization through photography." Edward Curtis' The North American Indian was not only a technology of colonialism, it was coextensive with the invention of ecological crisis. Curtis' photographs made crisis possible by revisualizing Indigenous life as un-seeable: simultaneously improper and the property of the colonial.

Curtis's photographs posture Indigenous bodies as ghostly (not subjects), Indigenous lands as vacancy (not territory). At the same time, they are, as Gerald Vizenor writes, "possessory." They transform people into "ethnographic evidence...mounted in museums" and land into the property of prospective state expansion. [3] The absent-ness of Indigenous lands and people was created to make room for the settler state. In this sense, the unsee-ing of ethnography is also the scene of settler politics. Empire sees through photography, the scene of what Jacques Rancière calls the "distribution of the sensible"—a "dividing up [of] the sensible" that's accommodates the fantasy of a universal here and now. [4]

That Wilson's photographs are landscapes is significant precisely because landscape symbolizes the colonial universalization of environment as a time and place. When W. J. T. Mitchell argues that landscape "is not a genre of art, but a medium...particular [to] European imperialism," he identifies this same nexus of power and sensibility: the "semiotic features of landscape...are tailor-made for the discourse of imperialism, which conceives itself... as an expansion of landscape understood as inevitable." [5] Landscape is empire "mov[ing] outward in space as a way of moving forward in time." [6]

In not-visualizing the event of environmental crisis, Wilson's photographs not only image the aftermath: they interrogate the entanglement of art and empire that made environmental violence possible in the first place.

The subject of Auto Immune Response is living in the broken frames of art and empire. Ethnography breaks down trying to contain Indigenous life, and the scene of that breakdown is where Auto Immune Response is looking. These images of aftermath aren't still; they're permeated by motion. They blur in gesture and splintered framing: sight and setting unmoored into each other. In the shuttering reduplication of the subject, the torque and flex of light and water, the response of Auto Immune Response is exceeding the visuality of colonial fields of recognition.

If, as Vizenor argues, ethnography and landscape are "poselocked" in silence, Indigenous life in Auto Immune Response is animated in what Fred Moten calls "the sound of the photograph": the moment the breakdown of its visual control activates a breakaway of meaning, "the aesthetic and philosophical arrangements of the photograph...anticipate a looking that cannot be sustained as unalloyed looking but must be accompanied by listening." [7]

What Auto Immune Response sounds like is impossible to say. But it begins with the urgent interrogation: "What happened?"—not just a question but an insistence. "What happened?" sounds the complexity of a present prior to and after the frame of the photograph, the frame of crisis, the frame of empire. "What happened?" echoes in Marvin's Gaye's "What's Going On?"—a song, as Moten writes, that starts in the sound of the salutory, the social, people talking. It starts in the sureness that the question, and the life the question indicates, "didn't come from nowhere. If it came from nowhere, if it came from nothing...you need a new theory of nothing and a new theory of nowhere." [8]

The sound of Auto Immune Response is not an abstraction, it's the material fact of Indigenous life that colonialism visualizes as nothing. It's the sound of the inhabitation of a present whose politics are "toxic" and "uninhabitable." In this same sense, these photographs are also utopic: energized by what José Esteban Muñoz calls a "surplus of both affect and meaning in the aesthetic," whose force not only calls for a "rejection of the here and now" as toxic, but enunciates the "world-making potentialit[y]" of the non-toxic forms of living that already exist underneath and beyond landscape: in what Ernst Bloch calls a wish-landscape; what Jaune Quick-To-See Smith paints as "narrative landscapes." [9]

Aftermath is uncomfortable, and not just because it's toxic. Aftermath in Auto Immune Response is an excess not just an after: a surplus of time and place and life. "The thawing" as Sherwin Bitsui writes, "of our flat world." [10] Where crisis tries to condition us to inevitability, Wilson's photographs return to the turbulence of a present uncloaked of passivity or acceptance. A return to an insurgent sense of a more-than-sensible; "the long out-waiting" as N. Scott Momaday called it; the out-living and living out of crisis. [11]

Notes

[1] W.H. Auden, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940).

[2] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011), 2.

[3] Gerald Vizenor, "Fugitive Poses," Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998), 145-165.

[4] Jacques Rancière, trans. Steven Corcoran, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London: Verso, 2010), 36.

[5] W.J.T. Mitchell, "Imperial Landscape," in Landscape and Power, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002), 17.

[6] ibid.

[7] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 200.

[8] Moten, 251.

[9] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York UP, 2009), 1, 3, 35.

[10] Sherwin Bitsui, Flood Song (Fort Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon P, 2009), 67.

[11] N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 53.