Queer Ecological Imaginations
BY CHANDRA M. LABORDE & STATHIS G. YEROS
Western scientific models of sustainable development and environmental resilience represent the climate crisis as a challenge of global technological, industrial, and social optimization. These kinds of frameworks often disguise capitalist accumulation as design innovation and even as humanitarian interventions: greenwashing buildings, “modernizing” rural infrastructure, microfinancing the implementation of neocolonial technological “solutions” to economic resilience. Resisting the pernicious violence of extractive capitalism, disenfranchised groups have developed place-based strategies and techniques of embodied protest that break with late capitalist governmental rationality that fetishizes the relentless pursuit of progress. These have historically included Indigenous communities making meaningful claims to ancestral lands, queer collectives building rural communities in the 1960s and 1970s, urban anarchist enclaves, and disability activists.
In fall 2020, we established Queer Ecological Imaginations as an experimental working group to examine these precedents from the perspectives of queer ecological critique, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory.1 Our broader aim was to sketch out a subaltern climate network with likeminded colleagues from a broad range of academic disciplines. Our own institutionalization in architectural and urban history informed our interest in the performative aesthetics of subaltern responses to climate collapse. We borrowed the group’s name from queer ecologist Nicole Seymour’s “achievements of imagination.” These are examples of protest that have much to offer to queer theory, sexual politics, and environmentalism, by thinking beyond the stalemates and impasses of social justice activism under capitalism.2 This kind of imagination includes new non-heteronormative ways to think about the future of the planet in a more radical way by caring for the natural and expanding the social.
In the last two decades, scholars from a number of disciplines including geography, literature, and anthropology have theorized queer ecologies as ways to dismantle the binarisms embedded in contemporary ecological thinking (nature/culture, human/nonhuman, feminine/masculine). An important aspect of their work, and the basis of re-thinking the politics of environmentalism in terms of social and racial justice, is the critique of emplaced settler colonial relationships that are often taken for granted within debates about “environmental stewardship.”3 The Queer Ecological Imaginations working group aims to study alternative conceptualizations, visualizations, and prefigurative enactments of what Donna Haraway has called “staying with the trouble” of continuously recalibrating the parameters of resistance and dissent.4 We believe that these discussions will inspire alternatives in which more-than-human relationships might be enacted where posthuman, contingent, and non-dichotomous qualities vibrate with the spatial imaginaries of queer ecologies. In what follows we will briefly discuss the work of the first group of workshop invitees as case studies in an expansive and polyvalent field of queer socioecological processes.
Fig 1. Still from footage from a performance in Pony Express Ecosexual Bathhouse installation presented during Liveworks (Sydney, Australia, 2016).
QUEER ECOLOGICAL PERFORMANCE
The capacity of humorous encounters and the use of irony as tactics to destabilize the norms of everyday life and mainstream culture have been underutilized in environmental activism. In Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, Nicole Seymour critiques mainstream Western environmentalist movements from the perspective of queer performances that expose a cognitive dissonance.5 On the one hand, the futurity that animates much contemporary environmental activism is predicated on overcoming the dire conditions of the present, and on the other, “doom and gloom” narratives employ pessimistic—or even outright nihilistic—views of the ecological crisis. For example, the Lesbian National Parks and Services project by Canadian performance artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan is a multimedia project in which the duo, in “Lesbian Ranger” uniforms, circulate pamphlets among national park guests in which they inserted lesbian “wildlife” images (with highly imaginative attendant descriptions) into the park landscape.6 The queer performances in Seymour’s analysis do not all share the same aesthetics, nor are they polished in the sense of resolving the contradictions that they highlight. Rather, they employ insights from queer theory that question the “stability” of socially constructed identities in the ways they conceptualize and perform queer alterity, in order to destabilize the meaning of environmentalism and seek a new basis for collective responses to the climate catastrophe.
In her presentation for Queer Ecological Imaginations with the provocative title “The Greenhouse in the Bathhouse: Ecosexuals, ‘Plant Daddies,’ and Queer Spatial Design,” Seymour shares insights from her recent work on the role of affect, sexuality, and desire in enacting queer relationships with (and through) plant life. She examines this idea through the analysis of an art installation, a documentary, and the curious case of “plant parenting” that millennials fetishize in Instagram posts and “how-to” guides for raising indoor plants. In these cases, plants are conceptualized as intimate companions in different ways: as living (and life-giving) irresistible sensual art objects and as “plant babies,” silent witnesses of the withering away of domestic life that also function as natural air-purifiers.
Seymour’s queer ecological examples balance between hopefulness and hopelessness. They aim to change the structures of feeling in relation to “ecogrief” by opening spaces that stem from the cultivation of queer desire for plants—among other non-human agents—in times of what Seymour calls a pervasive culture of “sad sexiness.” One of her examples is the “Ecosexual Bathhouse,” an installation by the Pony Express collective (multiple venues, 2016-ongoing), where artists explore an interactive environment of vegetal eroticism that highlights the plants’ sexuality and the sensual ways they can interact with humans and the environment (Fig. 1).7 Following a similar analytical lens, Seymour introduces an episode titled “Ecosexuality” from a documentary by Slutever that was featured on Viceland TV in 2018.8 Her analysis follows the documentary protagonists’ exploration of love, affection, sexuality, and desire in the ironic space between self-indulgence and comic adaptability, thereby expanding the meaning of the phrase “love of nature” and finding that desire and reciprocity can lead to a more profound interest in caring for the environment. By framing ecosexuality in a playful way, as the characters in Seymour’s examples do, unexpected relationships with the forces of nature can be part of an alternative future.
Fig 2. Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw masked dancers. Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, November 13, 1914.
COLLECTIVE INFRASTRUCTURAL IMAGINATIONS
The notion of queer desire also animates Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram’s work, an environmental planner and landscape ecologist who has worked on LGBTQ2S (Two Spirit) spaces and design issues in California and the West Coast of Canada since the 1990s. Brochu-Ingram has used the term “queer infrastructures” to refer to the physical and institutional structures that support the lives of queer people, and especially queer Indigenous communities and people of color.9 These infrastructures operate under the radar of modernist environmental planning and governance, but utilize some of its language tactically to build coalitions on the basis of shared vulnerabilities.
Collective infrastructural imaginaries can draw inspiration, in Brochu-Ingram’s analysis, from the tactics that Indigenous governments in Canada employ to reassert stewardship over territories, by claiming cultural sites as meaningful emplaced components of minoritarian citizenship (Fig. 2), for example. In the case of LGBTQ2S alliances, the construction of “spontaneous ecologies” as networks of mutual support and the provision of care can become templates for the enactment of queer collective futures.
In Cruising Utopia, Jose Muñoz theorizes queer futurity as the optimism embedded in art that prefigures a shared aesthetic.10 That aesthetic can then become the basis of a collective queer political project. This notion of futurity animates Brochu-Ingram’s descriptions of queer infrastructures in his presentation for Queer Ecological Imaginations. “Queering” what otherwise could be seen as examples of mainstream design and the non-profit industrial complex is to create affective relationships in and around them. There, again, enters the notion of queer desire. How does erotic pleasure decolonize the very spaces where it takes root? If spaces as diverse as a youth center in Las Vegas, a bar in San Francisco, and a health clinic in Vancouver can be conceived as examples of a queer utopic present, then the structures of mutual care that they engender prefigure the kinds of alliances needed “to queer” particular environments.
Fig 3. A recently created public park on the site of the former Anhalter and Potsdamer Rail Depot in Berlin. Photograph by Matthew Gandy (2020).
SENSING QUEER ASSEMBLAGES
Geographer Matthew Gandy’s work establishes conceptual links between more-than-human alliances and urban nature. In “Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality and Heterotopic Alliances” Gandy uses the example of an urban cemetery in London and its atmosphere of romantic decay, unkept character, and sense of disorientation that visitors often experience there to propose a queer reading of environmental degradation that resonates with the historical experience of lesbian and gay marginalization.11 Gay sex in urban parks, for example, is policed as an abject use of public space. At the same time, it is a concrete example of what Gandy calls a “heterotopic alliance” between vegetation (nature) and humans.
In urban design, managing “unruly” nature symbolizes human civilization’s triumph over the environment. But the actually existing biodiversity in urban parks—and their queer uses—are concrete examples of counter-narratives to normative urban design. In his presentation for Queer Ecological Imaginations, “Queering the Transect,” Gandy theorized the botanical transect (a method that traces a straight line across different ecologies to capture data from different sites that convey relationships between plant life across space) as a technique to visualize these counter-narratives as queer ecological knowledge. When applied to urban space, the botanical transect encounters unusual socioecological and sociopolitical assemblages (Fig. 3) that challenge traditional interpretations of both “primal nature” and urban space. In this sense, queering the transect can be a sort of reverie, expressed in the slow process of picking up plants, touching leaves, and smelling them—in short, establishing a haptic, sensual approach to space. Queering the transect also unsettles nativist perceptions of cultural landscapes by visualizing the socio-ecological assemblages that are formed in the margins of top-down city planning.
Weaving through the polymorphous network of Queer Ecological Imaginations, one common thread may not always be evident, but the vibrancy of queer assemblages emerges and dissolves throughout the place-based examples and imaginations it discusses. As we continue the work of the group, we look forward to expanding these explorations through the work of our scheduled speakers for Spring 2021 to consider broader understandings of ecology that include transgender “textures” and “sexological floor plans,” ecofeminist understandings of the everyday and of lesbian separatist communities, including the spaces and connections in-between.12
CHANDRA M. LABORDE is a Master of Science Student in Architecture (History, Theory, and Society). She studies radical environmental architecture and its intersection with Buddhist ethics in the Bay Area. She holds a Master of Advanced Architectural Design from the California College of the Arts, and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. She has professional design experience with ecological architecture in Tijuana, Mexico.
STATHIS G. YEROS is a PhD Candidate in Architecture (History, Theory, and Society). He studies modern and contemporary urban history and theory with a focus on sexuality, race, and gender. He is currently completing his dissertation under the titled From Queer Spaces to Insurgent Citizenship: The Emergence of Queer Urbanism in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stathis holds a Master of Architecture from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in Art History and Theater Studies from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and has professional design experience in California. Chandra and Stathis are the Queer Ecological Imaginations working group coordinators.
1 This group is funded by the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Arcus Chair in Gender, Sexuality, and the Built Environment of the College of Environmental Design, at the University of California, Berkeley.
2 Nicole Seymour, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 10–11.
3 See for example: Vanessa Agard-Jones, “What the Sands Remember,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 18, no. 2–3 (June 1, 2012): 325–46, https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-1472917; Scott Lauria Morgensen, Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. 1st edition. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2011.
4 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Illustrated Edition. (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2016).
5 Seymour, Nicole. Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age. Illustrated edition. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2018.
6 Ibid. 132-139.
9 Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram, “Building Queer Infrastructure: Trajectories of Activism and Organizational Development in Decolonizing Vancouver,” in Queer Mobilizations: Pan-Canadian Perspectives on Activism and Public Policy, edited by Manon Tremblay (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015), 227 – 249.
10 Muñoz, José Esteban, Joshua Chambers-Letson, Tavia Nyong’o, and Ann Pellegrini. Cruising Utopia, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. 2nd edition. New York: NYU Press, 2019.
11 Gandy, Matthew. “Queer Ecology: Nature, Sexuality, and Heterotopic Alliances.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30, no. 4 (August 2012): 727–47. https://doi.org/10.1068/d10511.
12 Our guests for Spring 2021 include arts writer and creator Jeanne Vaccaro, and artist Carmen Winant in conversation with lesbian separatist photographer Carol Newhouse.