INTERVIEW BY WILLOW DEFEBAUGH
As a solo artist, ANOHNI has created a discography of hauntingly beautiful music that is equally capable of moving audiences to tears and onto the dancefloor. Combined with her visual art, it’s a body of work that pulls no punches and tackles political issues that range from climate change to the refugee crisis. Here, alongside original artwork from her recent exhibition “Miracle Now,” she reflects on paradise, the patriarchy, and preventing ecocide.
One of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary of “natural” is “formed by nature; not subject to human intervention, not artificial.” At what point did we, as humans, decide to actually remove ourselves from the very idea of nature? And to what extent, if any, do you think that language, as an extension of our perception, might even be part of the problem?
I wrote a song called “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” addressing this idea. Some people say that the dawn of agriculture may have prompted an early sense of separation, as men’s assertion of control over plants and animals led to a fundamental shift in the dynamics of our relationship to nature, spawning a kind of mutiny. Men began to reject ancient notions of the Female Divine. They began to resent Her, lose respect for Her. Modeling animal husbandry, men enslaved women’s bodies as conveyor belts for sons. They designed a new supreme deity to support this emerging narrative of male authorship and control. This god reigned from a paradise beyond death. If we were compliant, he would allow us to join him and escape the voluptuous, feminine curse of the seemingly never-ending life on Earth, with all its attendant difficulties. Humans began to enslave each other to work in the fields. Life became cheaper. Infantilizing workers with sugary promises of paradise in the afterlife paved the way for colonialism and resource extraction. You still see it with missionaries, forging into territories home to indigenous people under the auspices of providing spiritual salvation, disrupting the long-held beliefs and practices, and then swallowing up the natural and human resources in the aftermath—the same model, promising consumer salvation, that oil and tech industries uphold today. So, that’s one take—not so much about language, but certainly about concepts and circumstances that may have contributed to a break. Whatever the cause, it’s never been true for some people on this Earth. Cherokee filmmaker and activist Heather Rae recently said, “We need to re-indigenize the descendants of the lost tribes of Europe.”
What if death is not necessarily a departure from this world, but rather a transformation in how we inhabit it? I am made out of water and atoms and carbon. The evidence of my senses suggests that I stay here forever—at least in some capacity, shifting forms. Embrace the idea that I might not leave here when I die and suddenly the Iroquois concept of seven-generation sustainability seems like an act of self preservation, rather than something altruistic.
But most people aren’t praying to carbon and water and energy. Almost everyone is still praying to the patriarchal mind god, perched in his un-world, deciding who’s naughty and who’s nice, and who will get into heaven—or to the next level on Minecraft. Meanwhile, it’s more likely that we’ll all be reborn as factory-farmed chickens, because it’s only in those hellish places that life is still proliferating in abundance.
Other times, I think it might just be the brutal, biological imperative of disease at work, having its way with us. I wonder if viruses have moral dilemmas. I imagine that before they ravage a person, some HIV viruses might whisper to each other, “Do we really want to do this? If we do this, our host will soon be dead; won’t we all die? Why should we care? It’s always been this way. We’re half-dead already. Our souls are separate from the Earth. Paradise awaits us in death.” But what really motivates us as bringers-of-death? Fear of scarcity? Addiction to short term gains? Ancestral PTSD? An infantile horror of our own dependency upon our mothers as our creators?
“What if death is not necessarily a departure from this world, but rather a transformation in how we inhabit it? I am made out of water and atoms and carbon. The evidence of my senses suggests that I stay here forever—at least in some capacity, shifting forms.”
Some make the argument that when we talk about humans “destroying” nature that we’re actually in some way disempowering Her and giving ourselves too much agency. She has obviously existed long before us and will continue to exist after us. To what extent do you really think we’re talking about ecocide versus preventing the sixth mass extinction of the dominant species?
If we were just taking ourselves out, I could accept that. But we are so cruelly taking out the fundamental building blocks for so much of life on Earth. We’re boiling the krill and coral, acidifying the oceans. We’re wiping out so many amphibians, birds, insects, and mammals with our mundane daily decisions as consumers—so many ancient, complex, impossibly rare, interdependent lifeforms, that have taken so many millions of years to emerge. It could be a 50 to 70 percent extinction event. So, I do not think we have a right to that point of view. We do not have the right to justify our participation in a crime this grave, one that will be remembered in the fossil record as a vast act of violence for as long as this planet exists.
It is deluded to think that our “progress” cannot be stopped, that the “market” cannot be contained, that expansion and growth must go on and on, regardless of where it leads us, that our population cannot be curtailed, that we must continue to feast upon Her, that retreat is impossible. Apple and ExxonMobil may as well have authored the pamphlet that this spiraling descent cannot be arrested, that we have no agency to change our course, and that it is our manifest destiny to destroy the Earth—a part of a natural cycle, even. Scratch the surface of a some supposedly “rational” assessments and you will often find a tidbit of Judeo-Christian fake news, insidiously supporting our destruction of the biosphere.
I try to inhale the weight of the cataclysm that we are authoring. Embrace the discomfort. That is what I feel is being asked of us. If we are ever to wrestle this to the ground, it will require a massive shift in our ways of thinking. Let’s be brave and make space for reality as best we can. We are warm blooded mammals; it took us a long time to transform from a bunch of blind, cannibalistic monsters living at the bottom of the sea to emerge as soft-bodied, comparatively gentle forms capable of sensitivity and empathy in a world surrounded by such things.
There’s a line that we walk when it comes to the public perception of issues related to environmentalism. If we don’t underline the severity of everything that we’re up against, then people just walk away and think, Okay the Earth will be fine, it will regenerate. But if we underline too much, then people become overwhelmed and go into the territory of thinking, What’s the point, what can I possibly do? How do we empower while making them understand the urgency?
It’s a question that we’ve heard discussed over the last decade. Some came down on Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth, saying it set the environmental movement back because it was too negative. I think that’s misguided, because it’s really happening. People want to suck on a consumer-friendly version of this. But the only things that will help to avert the worst of what’s to come are heroic actions and sacrifices.
I have heard environmentalists and scientists privately express feelings of hopelessness. I was chastised several years ago for “crying over spilled milk” by one scientist who told me, in the same breath, that 50 percent of the world’s species were already guaranteed extinction by the end of the century. I told him that my job as an artist was to explore the emotional, psychological, and spiritual ramifications of what he had just said. The biologists and zoologists are all building seed and DNA banks. Could you illustrate desperation any more clearly? They are packing up the Louvre while we go about our business, largely oblivious, complaining about the weather. The environmental psychologists insisting that a plain outlay of the facts will discourage public interest are probably funded by the Heartland Institute. We have to start with the truth, as best we can discern it. We don’t know if there is any room left to shift this.
The goal is to metabolize all this information into a new kind of collective consciousness. The data has been available in universities since the ’60s; the Victorians saw this coming at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. I collected articles from the local newspaper about what the future was going look to like as a teenager in the Silicon Valley during the ’80s. But vigorous corporate disinformation campaigns fed consumers’ fear and denial.
I was talking to Laurie Anderson yesterday. She quoted a friend of hers, a writer, who said, “You can’t wake people who are pretending to be asleep.” What we’re dealing with here isn’t ignorance anymore; it’s a willful and malevolent, complex state of denial. I find it useful to conceptualize it as an illness, or a kind of brokenness.
The question for me as an artist has been the same for a while: Are we capable of changing our trajectory? Are we even capable of imagining changing our trajectory? Especially when many of the people thinking and dreaming about the future justify our own continuing polluting as the price we must pay to participate in the global conversation. That part makes me sick, my own complicity.
Obviously, such a big theme of your solo work as an artist has been this idea of hope. What is your relationship to hope right now?
What’s going to determine the future is not our feelings, but our behaviors. Personally, when I hear those “hopeful” songs at the end of documentaries about environmental collapse, I want to puke. Do they think we are idiots? Every taxi driver knows what is happening. Everyone knows it: the business men, the oil men, the kids on the street, the girls picking rice in the fields, the homeless, the actors, the Republicans, the laborers slaving away in Dubai, the Catholic priests. Everyone can feel it. We are not so separate from this Earth that we can’t feel what She is feeling. We are porous creatures—physically, psychically, emotionally. Like babies in the womb, we feel our Mother’s feelings. We can sense Her future. We talk about it in movies, in myths.
Only a massive and sustained shift in the global collective consciousness could change the paradigm. I believe that can only come from women across the globe finally waking up and forcing their sons to see what it is that we are all really a part of here. I have little confidence that men as the governing sex will be able to do this. Female subjugation may need to be undone in order to save much of life on our planet. I believe that only female elders in consensus will be able to lead us out of this. That means men finding within themselves the wisdom to defer to their mothers in a profound way. It is such a simple, subtle gesture of respect and love.
Most people believe that the end of life on Earth is more realistic than the end of male domination. Dad’s at the wheel, he’s been drinking, holding us all hostage, and he is determined to drive us off the cliff. He’s dangerous, and he’s posing as a rationalist, an economist, a judge, a bipartisan, a philosopher, a strategist, a gambler, a religious leader, a manufacturer, a miner, a military officer, a scientist, a lawyer, a father. He needs to have compassion, for himself and for all of us, and step down and ask for help. He has taken us to such a dangerous place. Mothers need to find the guts to abandon their PTSD loyalties to their sons, husbands, and fathers and start prioritizing other women, and children, and all of biodiversity, and the global community.
I don’t know that we can say that feelings are completely irrelevant, because I would venture that a sense of anger or righteousness would be part of what has fueled your work—and certainly your work has inspired people. So, to some degree, I do think that emotions are an important part of catalyzing change.
Hope and hopelessness are significant. Depression is a real thing. Some people working in environmental fields today are suffering from depression, and it can have tragic consequences. A sense of hope can improve people’s lives. So, yes, it does matter. Feelings matter. Of course they matter. I spent my whole life basically fighting for the concept that feelings matter. But when I inhale a bigger picture of the world beyond me and without me, then my feelings seem much less significant.
Do you feel that you have this kind of burden, as someone with a public platform, to keep others hopeful?
It’s something I’ve tried to move away from in the past few years: doing a little tap dance for people or placating people’s fears. I used to console other people with a lot of my music. I am not sure that’s useful anymore.
At the end of the day, I don’t think we really did separate from nature. I just think we became a different aspect of nature, a more destructive one—just as every acorn or pathogen is a part of nature. But do we have any remaining, untapped agency to choose who or what we finally become? Can we consciously evolve? Thich Nhat Hanh thinks we can. He is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance during the Vietnam War. I read a book of his recently and was moved to hear him advocate for Mother Earth and for the renewal of our spiritual alignment with Her.
I completely agree that part of the issue is that we perceive ourselves as separate from nature, even in how we define the word. But really, we’re not separate. Even if you look at technology, which is something that we always pit against nature—artificial versus natural—technology is really a set of tools. Nothing is inherently good or bad, so it’s a matter of what we do with the tools that is good or bad. The rocks used by an otter to crack open a shell—that’s technology. In the same way, everything we’ve invented is not really separate from nature; it is a part of nature. So, even though we’ve used technology in these ways to rape and pillage the Earth, it might just be what saves us.
That’s something we’ve been told. Technologists and their beneficiaries have perpetuated the fallacy that there’s no going back. But, moving forward, it can be stopped; it must be contained. It’s a capitalist, anti-nature idea that we have to keep scaling the heights and multiplying. It’s an anti-indigenous idea. Other civilizations have contained the development of new technologies and tools to conform to their values. Yet we have been forced to restructure our values and our lives around a constant stream of new technologies, most often thrust upon us by wealth extractors who have our very worst interests at heart. They lure us in with sugar lumps and fear and then they enslave us and steal our shit. We are being used.
Corporations and governments should not have the right to develop toxic technologies without the explicit and informed consent of the global community. Many technologies are more like aggressive cancers than rocks. Even if we don’t use them, their very existence needs to be contained in order not to create terrible damage. With the benefit of hindsight, how many of us would have preferred not to have entered the digital age of data-gathering and surveillance? In the last 80 years, elite groups have developed the means to destroy the world tens of thousands of times over. Technological development is a moral issue. It is not benign, it is not inert, and it is not equal opportunity. It’s an often distorted and unearned acquisition of power, a kind of theft from Nature Herself. And in our world, Nature has no rights. She has no property, landscape or information that cannot be stolen. We have not evolved the kind of collective consciousness that would enable us to ascertain that we want destructive technologies in the vaults, even if we were able to effectively contain them. We need a Yucca Mountain just for our technologies, our new viral strains, our genetic modifications, our petrochemical century, let alone our nuclear waste. The “Doomsday Clock” is currently at two minutes to midnight. Technologies have been ceaselessly injected into the blood streams of our lives without our understanding what is really happening.
The reason decisions take longer to make in indigenous and non-capitalist environments is because true, informed consensus takes a longer time to reach. If there is one thing capitalism hates, it’s a long period of time, because in the fullness of time, all is eventually revealed. These technologies we are introducing should have been vetted for hundreds of years before being injected into our brains. That’s colonialism: Kick up some dust, kill who you need to kill, and steal the spoils in the cloud of confusion that follows. It’s like the gold rushes on Wall Street or the slew of deregulation that Trump is implementing with his cronies now. They know they are doing this on borrowed time, but how much can they steal, at the cost of how many lives, before the gate closes? Just ask the cigarette companies. The way we still handle big tobacco is a good indication of our resolve to regulate businesses from harming us. Will the fossil fuel industry ever receive a more stringent review, even as the weather systems of the world collapse in on themselves?
When I was with the Martu in Australia, I heard a story of a community in which men in one tribe weren’t allowed to make important decisions without consensus from the women. And if the women didn’t want a decision to move forward, they wouldn’t come to the meeting. The decision would be filibustered until the women were willing to attend.
In terms of collating and wielding evermore data, we are not ready for all this information stolen from nature. But in our societies, nature has no rights. At this point, every Hadron Collider is a pair of Nazi forceps. The information is being utilized by a tiny group of people to transform our lives, and hardly any of us understand the new terms of engagement. We are out of control, and it’s killing us. We’re behaving like something that’s less and less alive. We’re exerting less and less emotional and intuitive wisdom. In the space of a couple generations, we have been forced to abandon ancient neural path-ways so as to adopt new ways of thinking designed for us by corporations.
A few years ago, I was asked to sing at a TED conference in L.A. All the California corporations were there—Google and Microsoft and all these tech billionaires who are busy buying up New Zealand or wherever next it is that they think they’ll be able to survive an apocalypse. I think it was sponsored by Volkswagen. I sang “Another World” for them and then I said, “I’m hearing everyone talking about what progress we need to make technologically in order to solve the world’s problems. But I haven’t heard one person mention the possibility of retreat.” They were just mortified. For some reason, my name actually disappeared from the TED website a few hours later. So, I have a problem with assumptions about the supposedly inexorable nature of “progress.”
It’s so hard to conceive of de-escalation. Over the last few years, David Attenborough has said that we need to reduce our global population—which is taboo to even address. What would it look like for us to be living more harmoniously with the rest of nature? People are still reproducing at full throttle. What if instead we devoted ourselves to nurturing the resurgence of biodiversity?
I’ve been trying to hold space for a conversation to try to come to terms with what’s really happening in the hopes that one day it will be helpful, if not for my generation, then to some future generation. If we keep making this space, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable, something useful might eventually emerge.
Until then, we must make incremental, symbolic gestures, regardless of their effectiveness. It’s like prayer. Even if it doesn’t have much impact on these massive tectonic shifts that are happening across the world, there’s still something to be said for the grace of intention.
I do think that, amidst so much despair, there’s this undeniable current of hope, even in this country. So I am grateful for those like you who are making and holding space for this conversation. I don’t find it despairing; I find it hopeful.
Thank you. A world without nature as I’ve known it scares me. As someone who doesn’t believe in “heaven,” I feel that I belong here, that I’ve been here for a long time, and that I’m going to be here for a long time to come. I’m made of this place. The Earth owns my body and my soul. I love biodiversity, all my sisters and brothers—these creatures and plants are my family members. I don’t want my family to die. I don’t want to be here by myself, so lonely. Nature and spirituality and creativity are all the same thing to me. I don’t want to be a part of some desolate land. I love this green world. I love all the other animals. I don’t want it to go. It’s just my specific nature, and I don’t think that will ever change.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
Neo-Natural is a study of humankind's relationship to nature in the age of climate change, including topics such as resource depletion and regeneration, gene editing, cellular agriculture, and the increasingly inarguable effects of the Anthropocene on indigenous communities around the globe. It features contributions from artists like Yoko Ono, ANOHNI, Ryan McGinley, Daniel Beltra, and more, all attempting to answer the question: What does "natural" mean in the modern world?