The Three Ecologies by Felix Guattari

Even though The Three Ecologies was published in 1989, and offers some approaches to the global ecological crisis, most of the problems it highlights still continue today, some have even become more amplified as we persist to collectively commit ecocide as a species.

In this book, Felix Guattari re-defines the dictionary meaning of the word ecology, traditionally limited to the natural world, and extends its meaning to include human subjective ecologies and socio-political ecologies.  The main problem with the crisis of our era he asserts lies in the separation of these three registers.

What interested me as a painter is that Guattari suggest that we all become more like artists. He says:

It appears crucial to me that we rid ourselves of all scientistic references and metaphors in order to forge new paradigms that are ethico-aesthetic in inspiration.

My project Spore, used Guattari’s The Three Ecologies as a theoretical foundation. The main theme of the project was to look at a specific ecological crisis unfolding in the Western Cape, namely the disappearance of its endemic flowers because of the destruction of natural habitats. My medium for theorising was painting. Initially I assumed that the project would take on a botanical aesthetic and that I would probably end up producing many flower portraits. But Guattari’s insistence on engaging all three ecological registers took me on an unexpected journey.

One of the most seminal quotations of The Three Ecologies is:

We need new social and aesthetic practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other,
to the foreign, the strange – a whole programme that seems far removed from current
concerns. And yet, ultimately, we will only escape from the major crises of our era through
the articulation of:
-a nascent subjectivity;
-a constantly mutating socius;
-and an environment in the process of being reinvented.

What started off as a purely artistic pursuit, became an interdisciplinary research endeavor where I found myself traversing into the science of natural ecology, botany, conservation, agriculture, psychoanalysis, philosophy, politics and more. I decided to start with myself, as an individual ecology and look for related connections.

The Cape Floral Region is known for its unusually dense diversity. I needed to focus my project on a specific habitat in order to understand the problems contributing to its threatened demise. I thus chose a place I had some relation to. My grandmother farmed with export grapes at the foot of the Brandwacht Mountains in the Breede River Valley. Her farm was called ‘Raaswater’, named after the raging sound of the Hartebees River coursing through the property.

Upon my visit to the farm I found an empty river silenced by agricultural development. My initial idea was to find the physical flowers endemic to this place and work with them in painting, but this was not possible. I could not find any sign of the indigenous plants on the farm however, pliable clay still remained in the riverbed. I collected some clay and took it to the studio to see if I could converse with it and what it would reveal to me. Something of that can be felt in this quotation from A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari:

we... know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into composition with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body

In my initial works with river clay, I was still trying to represent flowers in some way. I then started to paint over my flower paintings with the clay and through a process of subtraction tried to reveal the form again. This painting made me see that the clay was capturing the properties of water, and I could almost hear the sound of the river in the marks it left. I decided to make a large scaled work to see if this waterfall-like mark could make the Hartebees River resound. With this goal in mind I set out to make the largest painting my studio could handle.

I left the pictorial at this point and simply worked on black substrates. I then covered the boards in a thin layer of clay and systematically and meditatively washed it off with water, taking care not to impart too much of my energy so I would allow the clay to reveal its properties. The results were astounding. Instead of creating a waterfall effect the clay seemed to have formed visual soundscapes or landscapes with reed-like vegetation. Initially I was very disappointed and wanted to try making the panels again. 

Guattari says that artists start anew each time and are willing to divert from imagined goals to unexpected outcomes. This way he says should be adopted by scientists, psychologists, as a new practice. He says:

This new ecosophical logic... resembles the manner in which an artist may be led to alter his work after the intrusion of some accidental detail, an event-incident that suddenly makes his initial project bifurcate, making it drift far from its previous path, however certain it had once appeared to be..

I obtained a plant list from the South African National Biodiversity Institute to see what would’ve grown on Raaswater. My project evolved into a search for rare flowers throughout the Breede River Valley, which was a far more difficult task than I anticipated.  In order to find the flowers I needed to know what they looked like, when they would flower and have a vague idea of where they would grow. I also needed permission from landowners to step onto their properties. The flower portraits I did produce were mostly referenced from the ispot and red data list websites. It ended up being a deep and intense process where many connections were made. Instead of sitting in my studio making traditional flower paintings, I spent my time searching for plants, collecting matter from various sites, meeting people connected to the plants and theorising through my questions in the studio by employing the practice of painting.

Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the  interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference , we must learn to think ‘transversally’.

The last series of work I called the Subjective Herbarium. It consists of ink books and two canvasses, arranged in relation to each other.

Guattari discusses individual subjectivity throughout The Three Ecologies. Human subjectivity he asserts is as endangered as some of the species on the planet. As I crossed over into various disciplines I became aware of the importance of finding the point between binaries, such as the objective, or scientific, and the subjective, or artistic.

Subjektiewe Herbarium is a collection of ink paintings and stains reminiscent of a plant-press book. Instead of documenting the physical properties of the flowers, the books preserve subjective responses triggered by my journey with threatened indigenous plants. Each work consists of several pages making up a circular book without a starting or ending point. The paintings challenge the idea of linearity by bleeding through the pages to other moments in the book. This signals an in-between place where past remnants and future potentials are simultaneously present.

The idea of relationship, this state of being connected, is further explored in Spore. This work is made up of two separate canvasses exhibited opposite each other and is a continuation of my work where I allow matter to represent itself. Both paintings are based on a circle within a square. In Hindu and Buddhist belief the mandala is comprised of a circle within a square and is used to create a sacred space and aid meditation. In Jungian psychology a circle with a dot in the centre refers to the self; the unconscious and conscious parts of the self. The difference in this case is that the work concerns the space between two opposing circles. In other words, the space facilitates the experience of relationship. The experience is not static but one in process as both paintings continually shed burnt plant material, resulting in subtly transforming images. In artistic terms these works started to challenge the conception of what a painting is, who its author is and whether these very fragile and impermanent works are marketable.

I see the idea of the viewer standing between the transmuting canvasses as part of the underlying outcome of my theorising. In The Three Ecologies Felix Guattari suggests that we ‘escape the major crisis of our era’ by finding ‘new aesthetic and social practices, new practices of the self in relation to the other’. This mandate prevailed as I used painting to move through various streams of research.  The outcome is a diverse series of paintings that are not necessarily flower portraits but that have threatened indigenous flowers as their subject matter.
The final exhibition of the work has the quality of a work in progress, an environment 'in the process of being re-invented' as Guattari would say. This environment is not representational, but it represents a place in crisis and considers new potential ways of navigating through an ecology heading toward extinction.  What I found is a way of viscerally experiencing the position of interrelatedness: I listened and asked questions and found my place – not really a physical place but a non-physical place of relationship, which somehow anchors me.