Art, Science, and the Vanishing Amazon

• Dispatch #23 •

Some thoughts about spending 10 days in the Amazon jungle—and what it means for me as an artist.

Hiking in the Amazon jungle

One of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had was being in the Amazon for ten days. From a distance, the forest may seem like a big uniform patch of green, but the Amazon consists of many worlds — the totality of which helps stabilize our climate by sequestering tons of carbon from the atmosphere, though its ability to do this is falling.

I was with fourteen other artists, and each of us had their own obsessions, from the sounds of ants to the aesthetic uniqueness of organisms to microbes in water. With such diversity of practice, we could unpack the beauty of the Amazon in all of its many facets. As we got closer the forest slowly revealed itself to us, one universe at a time.

One of my projects was An Olfactory Portrait of the Amazon Rainforest, and so my obsession was scent. One would find me mostly with my nose up to a tree trunk or leaves, taking deep inhales. The Amazon is a fragrant bouquet of smells that constantly changes depending on certain conditions. A branch smells different when broken, its sap extruded, or when wet from jungle rain, which would fall like a moving curtain and made the earth muddy and glistening. At any second of the day, the forest was magical.

This exploration of scent is a continuation of my work on art, science, and climate change. As the founder of The Apocalypse Project, I create interdisciplinary works that explore our environmental futures. The word “apocalypse” may make people think of zombies or the end of the world, but I use it to invoke its original Greek form, apokálypsis, which means “disclosure” or “lifting of the veil.” While there are still many who think climate change is a hoax, human activities such as deforestation continuously exacerbate the issues that threaten our planet.

I have been to “Fake Amazons” — Faux Amazons if you will — before I saw the real thing. Faux Amazons are recreations of the rainforest for educational and leisure purposes, such as theme parks that allow you to ride a boat to a model Amazon Flooded Forest or to see manatees swimming behind a glass wall while you stay in an air-conditioned room with WiFi. I have also tinkered with fancy virtual reality projects that allow you to scale an entire tree in the Amazon canopy without having to get up from your chair. All of them seem well-intentioned and expensive to make — how else can people who are unable to see the actual Amazon be inspired to conserve it if they cannot encounter its universes of stories, no matter how it borders on an ecological uncanny valley of a sort?

Tourists view creatures in the replica of the Amazon Flooded Forest at the Singapore River Safari in 2013

Still, none of them ever came close to the real thing. In the real Amazon, there are no tech glitches, narrative voiceovers, or cleaning crew. We rode a boat in the actual flooded forest, climbed to the top of an observation tower to view the 30-feet tall canopy of unbroken rainforest, watched butterflies dance and heard woodpeckers at work. None of these were scripted by an exhibition designer. Perhaps these gave us more discomfort than the fake Amazons did — how many insect bites can a city dweller endure, after all. However, none of these replicas will ever benefit us the way the real thing does.

Ironically (or perhaps tragically), as I was working on my project, the ephemeral nature of scent became my metaphor for the vanishing Amazon, which seems to be under consistent attack from political maneuverings, making it vulnerable to mining and other commercial exploitation. It’s not the first time the Amazon has been in danger, nor will it be the last. A dead Amazon is a possible future that lies ahead of us, its beauty existing only in faded memories and in the sanitized Disneylandification of its impersonators.

On a boat in the real Amazon Flooded Forest in July 2017

When it comes to environmental issues, it is really easy to lose hope. But this kind of attitude will not get us anywhere. Helping the Amazon needs all forms. For some, putting a temporary frame with #SOSAmazônia on your profile photo may smack of slactivism, but this together with their more nuanced online commentary has given me insight on friends’ local views, as someone currently based in the Philippines, which is about as far away from Brazil as you can imagine. But this, of course is not enough. All of us, no matter where we are from, benefit from this ecosystem, and it takes all of us with our diverse forms of creativity to do something.

As an artist who just spent some time there, I believe the Amazon needs art now more than ever. Human beings are already numbed by pictures of fallen trees, starving polar bears, ad campaigns, and protest marches. This isn’t to say they are not important — I believe they still are — but we need more. Art and culture has always helped us understand nature better. As artists, we can challenge the failure of the effectiveness of existing images by developing new forms that will trigger the right emotional response to spark action, new ways for people to engage with old and emerging stories, and above all, inclusive methods that can break down divisive walls that got us into this mess. Because isn’t this, after all, part of our job?

Beyond art, as human beings we should not fail the Amazon like we have done to other ecosystems that we have brutalized and that have already collapsed because of our choices. To do this isn’t just to risk future generations encountering the Amazon only through virtual reality goggles, but also our very survival. It was depressing to leave the Amazon, but I decided to leave motivated — the productive kind of anger. I believe that art can change people’s minds, so let’s get back to work.


This post first appeared on Medium.


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