Most of us walk in nightmares. Which hardly seems surprising in our current situation: war rages again in Europe after 77 years – albeit in a region whose important contributions to Europe’s cultural legacy are unknown to many, from the Cossacks to Gogol, from Pushkin to Cechov and beyond. Ukraine’s burning wheat fields announce famine of biblical proportions in other parts of the world, while the energy crisis provoked by the war makes us scramble to undo years of climate efforts. Last summer, heat wave stretched from California to the East Coast and from Ireland to China, breaking temperature records, provoking a once-in-500 year’s drought, and setting large swaths of Mediterranean woods on fire. In the meantime, the covid virus resurges in autumn and in some countries, hospitals again struggle to contain the pandemic. No wonder our sleep is agitated.
|The SciArt project brings together scientists with artists and policy makers to discuss matters of concern, not only to the JRC and the European Commission but also more widely to society. We broker, curate and communicate transdisciplinary exchanges and encounters around given topics of interest. We then produce and exhibit the result of such encounters in a venue of relevance, as a way to engage with the public, foment conversations with the citizen, and create cultural products of contemporary relevance.
The SciArt project works from local to global and back, as well as across cultural, generational (from school to senior scientists) and disciplinary boundaries.
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission’s science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy, with independent scientific evidence throughout the whole policy cycle. The JRC has six sites in five EU countries (Brussels, Geel, Ispra, Karlsruhe, Petten, Seville).
More information on the JRC can be found at https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/
The nightmares we collectively share, though, are old in the making and contain many strands of a slowly growing dystopian obsession. On the one hand, we imagine the future as a grim and disconnected fairy tale in line with our current struggles (Star Wars or its more adult relative Avatar with their all too clear metaphor of oppression and liberation). On the other hand, we see it as a future with the earth destroyed, desolate, inhabitable. Violent scenes from Mad Max (the latest from 2015) or Blade Runner (1982) show a bleak future of tired neoliberal survival of the fittest. Or, for those old enough to remember, Desolation Alley (1978) or Soylent Green (1973) all point to humanity’s inevitable failure to solve its problems. We are unable to envision a future with humans at peace with each other and the world at peace with nature. A world where vested interests are finally tamed, where inequality is finally resolved and we are finally capable of dedicating our lives to what enriches us. On the contrary, we feel enslaved to the rat race in order to be able to sustain our unsustainable consumerism. And we still haven’t learned the important lessons of the covid pandemic, as the 2022 crisis of aviation or the dearth of personnel in some industries so clearly demonstrate.
The current obsession with storytelling and sense-making, from art to policy, is part of this groping for a future that we no longer recognise. In The Age of Entanglement , we are unable to unravel the different strands that tell our stories. We have let go of history and are thus unable to create a dynamic perspective into the future. We forget that the word “nature” derives from the Latin nasci, with the very simple meaning of ‘being born’, or rather, it derives from the future tense of being born: nature is always future, ever-becoming – a continuously changing, dynamic process (natura naturans). The lack of dynamic tension between the past our forefathers built and the future we can shape, makes us also forget that history needs to be interpreted as a continuous process of creation if we want to find a path to the future. The beautiful metaphor of the Age of Entanglement thus finds its black mirror in what we could call the Age of Bureaucracy, or the Age of Safety. The more we do not imagine our future, the more we do not succeed in controlling events around us, the more we try to fix reality in dry procedural steps that stifle innovation. By consequence, our own stories linger in specialist articles or haunt us in 12-second reels, ever incapable of projecting us beyond the unfolding climate catastrophe.
To paraphrase the American poet E.E. Cummings, “A world that doesn’t dream is a world that is afraid”. In a recent interview with The Nation and Die Deutsche Welle , activist Kumi Naidoo looks back on his life. With a past as, amongst other, executive director of Greenpeace International and Secretary General of Amnesty International, Naidoo observes that his generation “… mistook access for influence”. He then remarks that “… what we really need is to turbocharge intersectionality” (which as SciArt practitioners, we could also read as a metaphor for the crumbling borders between disciplines implicit in Neri Oxman’s Age of Entanglement). His conclusion? Art and music are “a way in… One of the things that is most missing at the moment is… imagination. We’ve got to get people to imagine that it is within our grasp to turn this thing around.” In this way, Naidoo makes a remarkable feedback loop to the movement of art and science, that has made intersectionality and the combination of personal/scientific/artistic research the touchstone for new ways of addressing our challenges. The rise of SciArt is something we feel each day at the SciArt project of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). Not only in the many initiatives that are springing up all over Europe, but also in the enthusiasm displayed by JRC scientists interested in working with artists. In this way, Naidoo’s feedback loop goes also into another direction, towards the phenomenon of growing activism of scientists, some of whom feel morally compelled to leave science to sound the alarm on global warming and other challenges. “If everyone could see what I see coming, society would switch into climate emergency mode and end fossil fuels in just a few years” , writes astrophysicist and climate scientist Peter Kalmus. He was, in April 2022, the most followed climate scientist on Twitter, having turned to science communication and more recently, to climate activism with Scientist Rebellion . The urgency is also felt in institutions, first of all the UN. In recent remarks, at the occasion of the presentation of the new IPCC report in April or during the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was very outspoken on the need to address climate change. One tweet for many, on the occasion of the presentation of the latest report of the IPCC in April 2022, says it all: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals, but the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”  These are strong words.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, echoed a similar urgency in her State of the Union speech before the European Parliament in September 2020, as she called for a new cultural project with its own distinct aesthetics, to match style and sustainability. To this end, she announced the establishment of the New European Bauhaus (NEB), “a co-creation space where architects, artists, students, engineers, designers work together to make that [the marriage of aesthetics and sustainability] happen” . Since then, the NEB has launched new prizes in support of interdisciplinary solutions, written a tender for five new institutes next to a host of other initiatives, in an attempt to create a self-sustaining movement that harnesses Europe’s creativity towards a common goal. It is an exceptional initiative, not devoid of political courage, in order to prepare for the changes that we need to make, urgently. We know, that if we will not take the decisions today, climate disruption will impose them in some years, with much worse effects. An upcoming book by Greta Thunberg reinforces this urgency, denouncing the inconsistency and outright fraud of our governments in hiding part of their emission figures . In this way, it seems that activists, politicians, scientists and artists are all moving in the same direction, realising a convergence that philosopher Bruno Latour already called for in his seminal article Why has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern (2003) .
It is also in this context, that the JRC SciArt project has started the fourth edition of its flagship initiative, the Resonances Festival, on the theme of NaturArchy: towards a Natural Contract. Established since 2016 after a 2015 pilot, the SciArt project has applied a DIY/DITO method that Ariane Koek of Art@CERN called creative collisions . Putting scientists and policymakers in a room with artists is a powerful tool to find commonalities, not only in intentions but often also in approach, if not in method. Put very simply: crossing borders releases imagination for all parties willing to commit to the process. Opening up to different mindsets creates newness or at least opens up to a rich force field, heavy with the potential of newness.
In view of the urgency felt, the SciArt project wanted to delve deeper into the cultural, philosophical and epistemological ramifications of our attitude towards Nature, feeling that such a reflection is an essential element to bring about real change. It intends to tie together the latest understanding of science, art and culture within a sound vision that liberates our concepts of nature from obsolete assumptions. To quote from the Curatorial Statement:
Cancel the tired subject-object dichotomy between person and environment, the obsolete opposition nature and culture that does not hold in view of modern scientific discoveries; do away with conditions of mastery, appropriation, and submission; reimagine human concerns as unreservedly dependent on the natural world, integrated within nature. Only such a shift in our conceptualisation of nature can change our deep relation to the matter, species, ecosystems around us. A real Green Deal requires a systemic change of ground.
JRC SciArt project, December 2021 
The intention is simple: with NaturArchy, we attempt a double endeavour: to start dreaming again of a better world, where we are at peace with nature, as well as involving other fundamental systems, like law, in this experiment of creative collisions. It is the novel effort of crossing borders that is the praxis of art|science intersectionality, now looking at Law, another strong discipline with its own autonomy and with a long history of skirmishes with science. But also, a discipline where recent developments have been extremely interesting in the fight against global warming, from law cases based on human rights like the Urgenda cases in The Netherlands , to the emerging Earth Jurisprudence , or the study of indigenous law . This evolution is also marked by the success of indigenous claims to have the legal personhood of rivers recognised, in Canada as well as in New Zealand , not to mention Ecuador’s integration of ‘Pachamamma’ (mother nature) into its constitution since 2008 .
Science and the new powers it unlocks change the fundamental relationships of human societies with nature. One of the first to describe these changes in their philosophical, historical and epistemological ramifications was the French philosopher Michel Serres in his book The Natural Contract (1990) , a starting point of our reflection on NaturArchy. Serres was himself a polymath with titles in mathematics, classical philology and philosophy. Throughout his long professional life (his last book was published after his death, in 2019, at the age of 88) he worked to try and bridge different disciplines, moving seamlessly between science and its history, philosophy, literature and the arts, in an attempt to capture the changing realities around us. Serres wrote about the physics of the Latin poet Lucretius, presented information theory using the figure of the Greek god Hermes, proposed to extend history from written sources to the codes of nature starting with the Big Bang. He read thermodynamic theory in Zola, and published a beautiful book to celebrate his friend, the Belgian comics author Hergé. In his fifties, planning to write The Natural Contract, he went back to university to study law.
The Natural Contract (1990) arises from the realisation that, with science and technology, humankind has changed its relationship with the earth (the ‘earth-object’ or the ‘earth-planet’) in a fundamental way. Serres points out that a social contract arises as soon as humankind comes together in collectivities. An unwritten social contract governs the dealings of humans, delimiting and structuring any transaction, whether it be religious, political, cultural or commercial. Even war presupposes a law of war governing the way we exert violence – starting at least from the Romans: a formal declaration in order to start a war, an armistice (thus, a contract), to end it (the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ is, according to Serres, an impossibility). Before modern society, humanity was immersed in a natural reality that superseded the individual completely, making them a part of the surroundings, profoundly local in perspective, and granting the possibility to forget its constant wars thanks to the overwhelming peace of nature. Now science and technology have allowed the human to become equipotent with nature. In all our actions, we have become a force on a par with nature, capable of destroying the earth in multiple ways. Pollution, Serres notes in passing, is a means of appropriation, like an animal marking its territory in order to make it its own. Pollution as appropriation is a way of exerting our laws on the world. And precisely for this reason – this deep reason that refers to our animalistic origins – it is extremely difficult to change our attitudes to nature.
We can destroy the earth in many ways, not only and not so much with military means, but also by becoming so big that the entire world – the entire polluted world – is in our powers. By being equipotent with the world, we weigh on her, we delimit her, deface her and totally depend on her. Yet at the moment of our becoming equal, we find ourselves in a state of extreme fragility: if we make the earth inhabitable, we kill ourselves: “we must decide on peace between us in order to save the world and we must make peace with the world in order to save ourselves.”  In other words, the symbiont has become a parasite that kills its host.
In the end, being equal carries responsibilities. Like the old social contract, the natural contract does not need paper and signature to come into force. Like the social contract, the natural contract recognises an equilibrium between our current powers and the powers of the earth-planet. As any contract it creates a series of obligations, that together make a relationship. Nature today is defined by a series of relationships in a network that binds the entire world. The natural contract taps into this network, tying in humanity, binding it to the earth and the world. In this way, the Natural Contract has already entered into force, according to Serres, from the moment that we dominate the world. We are torn between our primitive awe of nature as endless and boundless, and our new powers that we still have not domesticated, victims of what Serres calls ‘the stercorary or excremental origin of the right to property’ . Even if we do not want it, the contract, like the old law of war, does not need signatures and laws. It derives from the relationship itself.
As any contract, the natural contract creates bonds and expectations. Rights, duties and obligations. The only thing that we can do to simply continue hoping that we can combat global warming, is to put nature squarely into this most artificial of human creations: Law. It might seem a contradictory move, but it is based on Serres’s rejection of old dichotomies, such as nature vs culture, object vs subject, etc. Even if the title of Resonances IV states Towards a Natural Contract, and following Michel Serres, it is by virtue of our new powers that the natural contract has already entered into force.
The concept of a Nature|Archy squarely dreams of a governance where nature, and not the human, stands central, where we decolonise nature, make space for the non-human and re-establish the Earth Planet, Gaia, as prime source of life. From the reactions we received, we think that many people already feel bound by this natural contract, at once in an instinctive and in a conscious way. Consciously, many people understand the urgency and the need for immediate action. On a more unconscious level, the concept helps bringing into focus the epochal change we are living through. While the concept of Anthropocene, with all its limits, can help us to understand scientific interpretations of this change, more is needed in order to untangle the double position we find ourselves in, old reflexes rendered obsolete by our surprise to find ourselves in a new position towards nature, with accrued responsibilities. It might help to disseminate the idea that this new responsibility needs to become a response/ability (John Cage/Donna Haraway), shifting from an ethics of accountability to an aesthetics of engagement . Exactly what Ursula von der Leyen intended with her launch of the New European Bauhaus, and what the SciArt project will experiment with.
The extraordinary success of the concept – coming back through various contemporary authors, from Bruno Latour to Timothy Morton and his hyper-objects , moving into the art world, for example with TJ Demos and the idea of decolonisation  – makes it possible to tie in many different aspects. The SciArt NaturArchy summer school in June 2022 did exactly that, tackling the theme from different angles, such as Nature and law, human/non-human, sustainable ‘green’ technology, indigeneity and ancient knowledge, circular economy. Each of these topics can be declined within the framework of a rousing concept that allows us to put nature central in our endeavours. Decentre the human. Decolonise nature. Recover Old Knowledge. Not only as artists and scientists, but also as policymakers and, mostly, citizens of the Earth.
Implicit in the concept of NaturArchy – as it is explicit in the major works of Michel Serres – is the idea that we have to shed our old and tired concepts with the help of the latest scientific insights, from evolutionary biology to astrophysics, and from forest ecosystems to neurosciences. But we must entangle these with new visions that abound in recent humanities, philosophy, and the arts, integrating the recent discoveries of science, the different codes of nature, from the language of the trees to a real recognition of different intelligences, human, non-human and artificial. Art and science combined are necessary if we are to find our way into this future: re-acquiring a taste of experiment, entangling different ways of knowledge, embracing complexity, bridging gaps and languages, to open up a horizon that can look beyond looming catastrophe at what might lie beyond. Shedding our nightmares might rekindle our capacity to dream up a future capable of combining our knowledges into a fine filigree that supports life in all its forms, rather than the borders of disciplines that suffocate. And that can englobe all phenomena of life, to paraphrase the NaturArchy Curatorial Statement, from DNA to stardust. This is exactly the stuff that our new dreams could be made of.
1) Oxman, Neri, The Age of Entanglement, Journal of Design and Science, 2015 https://doi.org/10.21428/7e0583ad. [back]
2) McKibben, Bill, “Handshake Activism” Won’t Defuse the Climate Emergency, The Nation, June 17, 2022, at https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/naidoo-neubauer-climate-activism/ (accessed 2 August 2022). All quotes by Kumi Naidoo come from this article. [back]
3) Kalmus, Peter, Climate scientists are desperate: we’re crying, begging and getting arrested, The Guardian, 6 Apr 2022. [back]
6) Von der Leyen, Ursula, State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary, at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_20_1655 (accessed 10 October 2022). [back]
7) Greta Thunberg on the climate delusion: ‘We’ve been greenwashed out of our senses. It’s time to stand our ground, The Guardian, 8 October 2022. [back]
8) Latour, Bruno, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry, 30 (Winter 2004), 225-248. [back]
9) See e.g. Ariane Koek’s website at ariane-koek-0424203001596534343.pdf (arianekoek.com) (accessed on 10 October 2022). [back]
12) For a general introduction, please see Wikipedia. For a more scholarly introduction, please see Burdon, Peter D, A Theory of Earth Jurisprudence, Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy, 37, 2012, 28-59. In an upcoming book, co-founder of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature Alessandro Pelizzon proposes the term Ecological Jurisprudence. [back]
13) See eg Martuwarra RiverOfLife, Alessandro Pelizzon, Anne Poelina, Afshin Akhtar-Khavari, Cristy Clark, Sarah Laborde, Elizabeth Macpherson, Katie O’Bryan, Erin O’Donnell & John Page (2021) Yoongoorrookoo, Griffith Law Review, 30:3, 505-529, DOI:10.1080/10383441.2021.1996882. [back]
14) Roy, Eleanor Ainge, New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being, The Guardian, 16 Mar 2017; for Canada, see Quebec river granted legal rights as part of global ‘personhood’ movement | CBC News, Feb 28, 2021. [back]
15) See e.g. Corrigan, Daniel P, and Markku Oksanen, eds, Rights of Nature, A Re-Examination, London, 2021. [back]
16) Serres, Michel, Le contrat naturel, Paris, 1990 (The Natural Contract, English translation by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, Ann Arbor, MI, USA, 1995). [back]
17) Serres, Michel, oc, 47. [back]
18) Serres, Michel, oc, 59. [back]
19) Fukukawa, Kyoko, Response-Ability: Practicing Integrity Through Intimacy in the Marketplace, Journal of Business Ethics, 160, 2019, 251–262; Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC, 2016. [back]
20) Morton, Timothy, Hyperobjects, Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, 2013. [back]
21) Demos, TJ, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, MIT Press, 2016. [back]