The Institute of Queer Ecology might largely exist online. But its principles—like using artistic research to uplift marginalized voices and finding environmental solutions on the periphery of the climate movement—prove, through a queer lens, that ecology is larger than life.
If ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment—including the more pressing problems of human affairs, like environmental pollution or climate migration—then we’re a long way to understanding the economy of nature and just how interconnected we are. But, like most relationships within our lives, the human response to question what, how, and why something is helps us break down what we perceive to be too vast to understand (even if ecology and the cycle of human and natural life is as endless as the Earth is round).
But queer ecology—a type of resistance ecology that has, in recent years, emerged from within the biosphere in response to the mainstream idea of humans versus nature—aims to flip the script on concepts like biodiversity, insisting there’s more to gain from cooperation than competition between species and our chance at creating a multi-species future. It’s a type of ecology that, as the Institute of Queer Ecology founder Lee Pivnik puts it, is born out of community.
Founded in 2017, the IQECO is a collaborative “organism” (per their mission statement) in constant pursuit of finding and creating alternative solutions to yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s climate crisis. It’s guided by queer and feminist theory and decolonized thought, believing solutions to environmental degradation are found on the periphery; it works to undo destructive human-centric hierarchies to, ultimately, unveil the importance of that which happens invisibly—underground and out of sight. And one look at its website proves just how diverse ecology truly is.
Its film series Metamorphosis (voiced by Mykki Blanco and Danny Orlowski), for instance, is a three-part proposal to restructure how the world is imagined and operates. Its multiform publication Common Survival, which looks at slow violence and bi-political control circa Trump, features 33 contributions as zines, photographs, sculptural objects, poems, and more—and is somehow contained within an 11 x 17 x 5 inch box. It’s true that a lot of what IQECO does might lie beyond our immediate understanding of how queerness and ecology exist as separate concepts, but that’s exactly what it is: a happy, digital medium.
In an interview with Atmos, Pivnik walks through the “relationality” of IQECO to other ecosystems and the climate movement at large, its upcoming project with the Guggenheim, and just how queer ecology has always been.
Talk to me about how the Institute of Queer Ecology was formed. What is it and what is your role there?
In 2017, in January, the story of the Institute of Queer Ecology begins. I was at the Rhode School of Design at the time and I had not actually made a piece in three months, which was a real feat within an art school critique setting to totally be paralyzed yet continue making work. And that was coming from this recurring, deep dissatisfaction with the work I was making. I felt like I was trying to solve large environmental issues with a single fine art object in a room.
I had distilled what I was interested in into engaging larger audiences, thinking through environmental issues, and also thinking about my queer identity in relation to evolution—or just nature at large—for the first time in my life, which was which was really a shocking thing to take so long to think of them as not two totally separate… like, the nature/culture divide… but the influence that I think other species have had on my personal identity and the reciprocal nature of queerness between the human and nonhuman world.
So, I was like: Okay, what would be a medium to start speculating on this? What if I… What would I like to dream up in the world? And I came up with this proposal for something called the Institute of Queer Ecology.
Basically, I was looking to create an opportunity to work with other people in a really specific niche way to explore what queer ecology is for all of us. It started in that very purely speculative place. In the past three years it’s grown more and more real, which is a very beautiful and surprising thing to see. And so I imagined that almost more as an organization to highlight the work people are already doing and provide opportunities for them to continue doing that work.
What are some topics within queer ecology that you seek to cover or unpack?
Right now, I’m super interested in the metaphor of our guts, in this multi-species conglomeration that makes us each non-human and the acknowledgment of it. Everything is connected through something. On the concept of evolution more broadly, there’s so much more work being done through collaboration between species than competition between them.
We think competition is such a good thing for economies and businesses and countries. In a way, that is detrimental to true collaboration, which is the main goal of the Institute of Queer Ecology: to provide the space for collaboration and build off of the inherently communal idea of queerness in a way that is so important. What I’m most interested in right now is rewiring our understanding of how we relate to other species and how we relate to each other from Darwin’s understanding of competition to one more of what Sylvia Earle, for example, explains as collaboration.
How would you define queer ecology? And would you consider queerness inherent to our overall understanding of ecology as a whole? What is ecology without queerness?
I have recently been breaking it up into defining queerness, and then defining ecology, and then thinking of those definitions together. The Institute of Queer Ecology acts as a visioning tool to speculate and imagine a new world that we can inhabit together—thinking of change as this grounding, universal principle that we first see in ourselves, and then acknowledging ourselves as individuals in the beautiful fluidity that queerness promises at the individual level—where you have the ability to constantly make yourself resistant to categorization.
I think the beautiful thing about ecology is that it becomes functional cosmology: a way to see the world and the relations through it, in a way that I would say can be understood as inherently queer. And I think that’s why a lot of people are drawn to the idea of ecology. The project of queer ecology is to free other species from the script of the history in which they’ve been written about mainly in a white/European, straight male, context, and kind of giving everything from other species to the people that are working in this practice—the agency to tell stories themselves.
Are there any misconceptions about the idea(s), even split as queerness and ecology, that you’ve encountered on this journey of seeking to understand this other realm of ecology as we know it?
Yes, totally. I talk about queer ecology as this ability to rethink how we see ourselves and how we see ourselves in relation to nature and how we see nature. It’s just this rethinking in light of what we can learn through queer theory and the idea of relationality, as a way to rewrite the world.
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How do you see any or all of this aiding the environmental movement as it moves forward?
The most beautiful thing about it, historically, is that it involves so many more people in environmental issues or environmental activism than before. I think a lot of these voices and coalitions on social media are being formed right now in response to people who are more marginalized identities looking for the opportunity to engage more directly with environmental activism. But they might be finding the opportunities that are in front of them to be very old-guard environmentalism. Even just the idea of conservation, and what we can conserve, feels so much like an old-guard environmental thing—like, it almost has this conservatism to it.
I think that it can only be a good thing in accelerating the work that is being done by so many more groups providing opportunities for so many more people to find their niche within it.
You also say that the solutions to environmental degradation are found on the periphery. Was that a shout out to frontline communities or marginalized voices who have largely gone unheard (and often been silenced)?
Yes. And we’re on Native land in this country and so many places in the world. This is no new idea! This is so inherent to how so many Indigenous communities come into relation with the world. I think this upwelling of understanding that many marginalized groups, specifically, Indigenous groups, are doing this work already—and are also, in many ways, the most vulnerable to climate change—is deeply aligned with that.
What is next for the Institute of Queer Ecology?
Throughout 2020, we’ve been working on a project with the Guggenheim in conjunction with their current exhibition, Countryside, The Future, by developing an immersive remote experience that gives attendees agency in co-creating something together.
What’s come out of this process is a program we’re calling H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. (Habitat One: Regenerative Interconnected Zone of Nurture): a multiplayer gathering space that offers an invitation for people to come together and share their thoughts, proposals, dreams, and offerings for a world more responsive to natural rhythms and each others’ presence. Conceived as a kind of digital commune for use while our daily lives see a shift towards indoor, isolated spaces, H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. asks us to collectively cultivate the garden within ourselves while unlearning the competitive individualism that has not only exacerbated a pandemic, but threatens the ongoingness of many species, systems, and ways of life. We’re wrapping up development of it now, and planning to launch around February.