Arie Altena

Dark Ecology

Interview with Tim Morton by Lucas van der Velden & Arie Altena


During the first Dark Ecology journey a group of artists, researchers and theorists travelled the border zone between Norway and Russia, from Kirkenes in northern Norway to Nikel and Zapolyarny on the Russian Kola Peninsula. This journey, which took place from 9 to 12 October 2014, consisted of site visits in and around Kirkenes and Nikel, exhibitions, lectures, discussion, and concerts. The aim was to explore the idea of a ‘Dark Ecology’ in the context of the Barents region, with its open pit-mines, pristine nature, and the heavily polluted industrial landscape of Nikel. On the last day, Sunday 12 October, we sat down with Timothy Morton, author of amongst others The Ecological Thought and Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, to reflect on the journey, his lecture and his experiences while there. Timothy Morton had opened the event the Thursday before with a keynote lecture entitled Human Thought at Earth Magnitude. The text that follows here is a highly condensed version of our conversation. Originally published at

Arie Altena: In your closing statement at this Dark Ecology event you described being in Nikel as standing on a charnel field at the end of our world – a world that is ending due to global warming. This charnel field has offerings for the dead, it is a place for mourning, but it is also a place of full of humanity and joy.

Tim Morton: It’s full of everything, everything is included. One of the great things about Nikel is that it is such an explicit statement about the reality of a life form that will come to an end. But it appears that even on that shattered dance floor we can find some kind of mojo to move. Despite Nikel being a highly toxic place, the people who work there have found a way of turning the poison into some kind of medicine. That’s truly heroic. I can’t understand how they did that. I was particularly touched by that aspect this journey.

AA: In your books you describe how a truly ecological approach to the world would mean designing a life that includes all the poisoned things, a life that takes into account the existence of plutonium, for instance. How does that tie in with your experience of Nikel, with its air that tastes of sulphur?

TM: With some kind of political will, Nikel could recover, I think. What looks like a totally shattered, post-apocalyptic landscape could be quickly transformed. One thing I want to stress is not to be too bleak. The trouble is, we have to go through a necessary grief phase when it comes to confronting ecological beings like global warming, because they’re so big and they’re stuck to us, they’re intractable in all sorts of ways. We’re having to face very strong negative emotions, and we should somehow be bending them. I’m thinking about the piece Espen Sommer Eide played in the school in Nikel on Saturday evening. He basically took what I guess was a first inversion of a harmonic minor triad – the kind of chord you play before the tragic resolution of a sad symphony about your deafness, or whatever – and he made it ooze, sort of atonally, a little bit around the edges, and made it bleed a little bit. Then he took the oozing-bleeding and bent it and moved it around and started playing with it. It was as if he took some kind of hard clay and warmed it up and bent it, transmuting it until it became something much more sensual, something that set the stage for what happened next, which was the explosion of demonic play and laughter of the final piece of that evening: Franz Pomassl’s performance. That was a very poignant moment because the piece of music never lost the feeling of agony, but somehow warmed it up and transformed it into a kind of golden feeling.

AA: One of the subjects you discussed was about how we humans hide our pollution, rather than have it out in the open. That seems to be especially relevant in the context of Nikel.

TM: We’ve had some interesting conversations about that in the past four days. One of the main problems of contemporary society, and I take ‘contemporary’ here to mean going back to about 10,000 BC, is that we’ve been gradually trying to make the remainders, the waste, the detritus disappear. At Earth magnitude, you’re not making it disappear at all. You’re only moving it from one place to another on the globe. You’ve literally done nothing except waste a lot of energy, which is quite precious. You’ve wasted quite a lot of photons, burning up quite a lot of the vegetables you’ve eaten to move a pile of dirt from here to there. Once you scale up to Earth magnitude, you can say that we’ve been in a Samuel Beckett version of Mad Max, pointlessly and constantly moving of piles of dust. If we decide not to be in this Samuel Beckett play anymore, then we have to leave the dust where it is. What does that mean? It means, for instance, that every town on Earth should have a well-monitored, protected, yet visible, amount of plutonium right in the middle of the town square. Visible, not hidden. It’s a matter of pragmatic urgency. Because if you hide it, if you put it underground, it’s going to leach into the groundwater. And no matter how many warning signs you erect, they will eventually decay and no one will understand them or remember what they are. Future beings in 24,000 AD, whoever they may be, will say, ‘Who the fuck left this thing glowing away underground? That was clumsy’. Putting plutonium underground is like leaving a piece of broken glass on the carpet. You just wouldn’t want to do that. So instead, we should make a nice sculpture out of the broken glass and put it on view. That means we directly own the fact that we made the plutonium. Even if we ourselves didn’t actually make it, the fact that I can understand what it is, automatically means that I’m responsible for it. I don’t think a major revolution would be required to achieve this. What has to happen is playfully attempting it. We don’t have to change all of society first. What we have to do first is actually change society by simply refusing to move the dirt somewhere else.

Lucas van der Velden: So should we look at the Earth from a distance to understand this?

TM: I don’t think we need extra knowledge. We already have a fuzzy, twittersphere version of what’s happening to our planet. And if somebody says, ‘Well I don’t care’, it means that they do care a little bit. And clearly, people who attach things to their trucks to spew out more carbon also care, otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to offend people who they feel have insulted them. You can’t escape from caring for the planet – and that applies to everyone. We don’t need special equipment for it. We don’t really need to see the Earth from space. I don’t need to be Stewart Brand (of the Whole Earth Catalog) insisting that everybody see the photograph of Earth from space, or be part of Al Gore’s campaign saying, ‘Everybody’s got to see the Earth from space’. In a sense we do already see the Earth from space, because our whole world has become a bit weird of late. I don’t think we have to persuade people. We should to cheer them up and amaze them. Art does that. I don’t like the reactive position that we’ve been in for a while now, where we are trying to do PR for a rather scientistic picture of what’s going on in the world. When you’re doing art you’re directly tampering with cause and effect. You’re not studying causality, you are causality. Many of the things I’ve seen in the last few days such as Signe Lidén’s installation, Raviv Ganchrow’s work, and the concerts in Nikel testify to that.

AA: In your most recent book Hyperobjects (2013) you describe art as a demonic force with its own cause and effect. The task of art is to tune us to the new world, rather than mapping this one…

TM: I’m wholly in support of this idea because it seems to me that the endless succession of ‘-isms’ in art history, all take place within the Mac Daddy -ism, which is consumerism space. And abstinence isjust another consumer position. The mapping approach is an -ism approach, and by that I mean it’s a way of adjusting your attitude all over again. It is thinking like the stage announcer at the Woodstock festival in 1969, who said, ‘Hey, if we think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain’. ‘If I just paint these cubes, maybe society will act’. If you think like that, you’re concerned with changing relations between thoughts and between humans. But there are things that are not you that also have agency, and some of these are really, really big. Right now, the mapping approach is naïve, to say the least, because we no longer have the breathing room to figure out something that is completely crushing us. Instead, it’s as if we’ve gone into a listening mode. People are wondering what is actually going on. We’re realising that there are these beings – hyperobjects, like global warming – that we don’t know everything about. We’re attuning to them right now. In the process we’ve noticed that they’re tuning to us. When you see a wonderful picture it has already caught you in its gravity well. In some phenomenological philosophies this is called ‘givenness’. There is already a force field in operation, pre-theoretically, even before you think, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful’. You are hypnotised by the thing, and this happens before aesthetic judgment kicks in. Instead of trying to find an approach where you are on top of the mountain, perfectly positioned so you can look down and see the phenomenon, you should allow the phenomenon to tune you. If that happens, you’re already in a relationship with a non-human – be it paint or sound or electromagnetic waves. This is why I’m interested in going back to things that seem conservative, like the Kantian notion of aesthetic judgment.

LV: How does the concept of hyperobjects relate to the idea of beauty?

TM: That is something I think about a lot. The headline is: beauty is the imminence of death. The beauty experience is a kind of warning light that comes on in your inner space that says, ‘One of you is going to die. Either it’s the picture or it’s you’. Oscar Wilde on his deathbed said it perfectly: ‘This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do’. When I experience beauty, I find in my inner space a footprint of a non-human being, something that isn’t me. I don’t need to prove that the beautiful flower exists. I have the feeling that it’s ungraspable because I’m not angry, I’m not upset, I’m not pitying, I’m not in contempt. I’m feeling powerless. By having this experience, you prove there are non-human beings. The experience is a quantum. You can’t chop it into smaller bits. It doesn’t have parts. It doesn’t have a front or a back, or an up and down. You can’t say: the beauty of the Mona Lisa is in the smile, cut the smile out, make a million photocopies of it, and then you have a picture which is a million times more beautiful. It doesn’t work the other way around either. You cannot isolate a brain chemical that is the equivalent of the experience of beauty, isolate the active ingredient, synthesise a pill – let’s call it MDMA – take a thousand of them and expect it to be a thousand times better than the beauty experience. Why doesn’t it work? Because you both co-exist in an uncertain way. Is the beauty experience happening in me or in the object? Where do I stop and where does the object start? Something is already tuning to you, even before you saw it. It emanates a seductive field and so you have a relationship where one could shrink-wrap the other. An appearance that shrink-wraps another appearance, is, for want of a better word, death. Beauty is almost like a homeopathic dose of death. This means beauty is not a thing that I can protect from all the other things like ugliness and disgust and kitschiness. It’s got a kind of disgusting, funny, little sickly halo around it that is part of it. We still have a very toxic default ontology that sees the aesthetic as just candy on top of the boring cupcake of things. Its not correct and modern science proves that it isn’t. Especially in our culture, people want beauty to be very functional. They want to be able to identify what something beautiful is for, so they can relax. But that’s exactly what you cannot do with beauty. Perhaps the most ecological art is the most ambiguous.

LV: So ambiguity and ‘not-knowing’ are crucial to the experience of beauty

 TM: It’s telling us something about the nature of what a thing is. Things are what they are and yet they are ungraspable. Say you love a particular piece of music, say All You Need Is Love by The Beatles. ‘All You Need Is Love’ is not the message of the song, it just isn’t. You can’t touch what is beautiful about it. You cannot isolate any part of it in it, or within yourself. There’s something ungraspable about the thing that enforces that flaw. Each time you try to translate the thing into something meaningful, the whole thing will elude you. Take an mp3 recorder: every possible sectional diagram or exploded view of the recorder is not the recorder. Let’s look at the problem from the position of the phenomenological philosopher Merleau-Ponty: every single possible state of the recorder in every possible use (by the pope, chucked in the river, et cetera), every part of its history and the timeline, all the bits of it put together, all the bits of it taken apart, all the exploded views, seeing it from every possible angle, isn’t the recorder. The recorder is going to annoy me, so I’m going to sit and wait until it shows me what it is. If I do sit and wait until it shows me what it is, I could become completely enlightened, but I still don’t know what the recorder is. Let’s say I create a huge religious cult devoted to finding out what or who the recorder is, and about a thousand years later, some nun in this cult is watching an empty space with a cloud of dust, some of which may or may not be this thousand-year-old recorder that has long ago crumbled to powder. And she doesn’t get it either. Another, even worse problem, would be if the recorder became sentient. But even the recorder doesn’t know the recorder. In this view, proving whether God exists or not, is irrelevant. Because even if God existed, he, she or it couldn’t be omniscient, so it doesn’t matter. To me that’s better than atheism, because you don’t have to believe or disbelieve at all. There is a kind of freedom, an implicit anarchic freedom to this view. It seems intuitively right to me. What the recorder actually is, is so specific, it’s so explicitly what it is, and it couldn’t be anything else, that I can’t hold onto it. Some people call it the withdrawal of the object (Graham Harman does). But that may suggest the idea that somewhere a real recorder is shrinking spatially back through some tunnel. I like to think of objects the other way, to see them as bristling – bristles are coming out, and that’s beauty, it’s in your face. Or maybe it is your face and you can’t tell. It’s right there and yet you can’t cope with it, literally, in any sense. That’s like a kind of ‘ping’, an echo from the world, from reality. You know solipsism is incorrect, because you know there is at least one other thing in the world. To me this is why it’s an interesting effect – because it’s a non-ego effect. It’s perfectly possible to have non-ego effects, because effects are not who I am either. When I look at my thoughts, I also discover similarities to mp3 recorders. When I analyse the front and the back, the top and the bottom, I don’t actually get to the essence of thoughts. I’m in the same position when it comes to ideas and concepts as I am with regard to things like tape or mp3 recorders or blue whales. The idea that I’m having thoughts in here, and there are things like blue whales and recorders out there also makes no sense… Sorry, I could really go on here for hours…

LV: Maybe you can also briefly reflect on the fact that we understand quantum theory, but we don’t experience the world in a quantum way?

TM: Our anxiety about things that have shown up on our radar such as evolution and global warming are emotional equivalents of understanding the implications of quantum theory. So, we don’t need to understand more; instead – like Han Solo and Princess Leia when they find out in The Empire Strikes Back that they’re not actually on a planet, but inside a giant worm – we just need to undergo the shuddering realisation of, ‘Wow, we’re stuck in a gigantic entity’. In the humanities and in art we work with emotional equivalents. We go into the dream world and adjust it so that people can have different dreams. So it doesn’t really matter what provoked the realisation. It doesn’t matter whether it was something that Alan Aspect discovered in 1982 when he entangled two photons. What matters is the feeling of ontological uncertainty and the hesitation about hitting the delete button on it. What matters is wondering, just for a minute, whether this uncertainty might be irreducible. That’s really healthy I think.

LV: What I find interesting about art is that it’s an experience. Science is about concepts and models that we make of the world. How do these relate?

TM: I think the humanities have more to do than just put candy on stuff for scientism, decorating scientism so it doesn’t look or sound too awful. Quantum theory is justifiable because this view of reality is very sound. Objects shimmer with appearance such that you cannot distinguish the appearance from reality, even though the appearance and the reality are different. Looking for a science factoid to help us understand this difference has been our problem for the last couple of hundred years. Science can proceed based on assumptions. Art actually interferes directly with cause and effect, therefore artists should say to scientists, ‘We want to get together with you guys and start making future toys, for 10,000 years from now’


Timothy Morton – Human Thought at Earth Magnitude – Dark Ecology 2014 from Sonic Acts

Blog Timothy Morton, with links to sound recordings of lectures and seminars

Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Open Humanities Press, 2013), ‘In this book, Timothy Morton explores what it means to say that a thing has come into being, that it is persisting, and that it has ended. Drawing from examples in physics, biology, ecology, art, literature and music, Morton demonstrates the counterintuitive yet elegant explanatory power of Object-Oriented Ontology for thinking causality’. Read the book online.

Dark Ecology, a three-year art, research and commissioning project, initiated by Sonic Acts and Kirkenes-based curator Hilde Methi, in collaboration with Norwegian and Russian partners. The first installment took place from 9 – 12 October 2014 in Kirkenes, Nikel and Zapolyarny.

Timothy Morton (US) is a professor and the Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University, Houston. He is the author of Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Open Humanities Press, 2013), The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard University Press, 2007), seven other books and 120 essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, music, art, design and food.

Arie Altena (NL) is a curator of Sonic Acts. He edited several Sonic Acts publications, including, most recently, The Dark Universe (2014).

Lucas van der Velden (NL) is director of Sonic Acts. He also makes audiovisual works as Telcosystems together with Gideon and David Kiers. They research the relation between the behaviour of programmed numerical logic and human perception of this behaviour.

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Arie Altena