Tiny Gladiators

Kneeling over your garden you peer down at a weed that has popped up in the middle of your hostas.  Whether you decide to dig it up or let it grow, you will be making a curatorial decision.   To say that letting the weed grow is leaving nature alone is a great misunderstanding of our situation.  We are nature's curators.  We let thrive what we find beautiful and useful.  We remove what we find ugly and threatening.  We leave nature alone only in relation to human ideas such as "untouched natural beauty".  (See Ecomodernist Manifesto)  In Glenn Kaino's show Tank at Grand Arts, (no longer on display) this vision of human beings as nature's curators is hyper realized in his "living paintings" of coral.  

(photo by EG Schempf, courtesy Grand Arts, Kansas City)

(photo by EG Schempf, courtesy Grand Arts, Kansas City)

The room at Grand Arts is filled with plexiglass tanks, all exquisitely constructed so as to appear as if they are floating rectangles of water.  Here, nature is presented to us on our terms, in a white walled gallery, surrounded by the comforts of air conditioning, delicious snacks and cocktails.  It is perfectly lighted and arranged for us to examine and reflect upon.  The first reaction is to admire the beautiful complexity of nature, to marvel at how gorgeous even the tiniest, most overlooked of life's creations can be, to crane your neck over the clear water of the tank and peer into the depths below.  

Glenn Kaino, “Tank” (2014) (photo by EG Schempf, courtesy Grand Arts, Kansas City)

The coral are delicately placed on silicone casts of military tank parts, a reference to a US program that dumps military vehicles into the ocean.  At first this comparison between the military and these delicate coral seems to be a play on opposites, but in actuality these soft blue aquiariums are miniature coliseums, where the coral wage a nearly invisible territorial war with each other.  As you stand admiring the luscious colors and sensitive design, a piece of coral is waiting to lash out at another, hoping to hurt it enough so that it might kill it and take the small sliver of silicone that it sits upon.  

Mr. Kaino takes this violent behavior as a metaphor for nations at war.  We are asked to imagine that the violence within this constructed micro environment parallels the macro violence in our world.  Just as coral expands, nations expand, and in their expansion violence erupts at the borders.  Just as coral sends out a battery of missile-like stingers to attack, nation states shoot their missiles toward one another, as the fight to gobble up land intensifies over the limited amount of space we call Earth.  

The lessons of this metaphor might be:

(1)  We are inherently violent creatures.
(2) Nation states are expansive/violent entities. 
(3) Borders between nation states incite conflict by unnecessarily dividing us.

The question I was left with pondering was, "Are any of these statements actually true?"

Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts by type of conflict, 1946-2013 – Max Roser http://ourworldindata.org/data/war-peace/war-and-peace-after-1945/

To get a better handle on how similar coral behavior is to large scale human behavior, it useful to look at statistics.  The first thing to notice in the graph above is the overall decline of battled deaths since 1945, but what is of particular interest is the near disappearance of colonial war, shown in the black bars, as well as war between nation states, shown in the blue bars.  

This graph illustrates the number of conflicts that have resulted in redistribution of territory since 1675.

If nations are truly violent expansive entities then we should see a sharp sustained increase in conflicts starting around their creation in the 19th century, as well as a sharp increase in colonialism and wars between nations, but instead, we have the opposite.  What this points toward is the conclusion that nation states are not inherently violent, and unlike coral, do not continue to expand and attack dissimilar organisms around them.

The Coral as Nation metaphor tells us that the most violent areas in the world should be at the borders between countries, as opposed to within the country itself.  This would mean that the largest border in the world, the US-Canada border, should be a hot bed of violence, as should all of Europe, since it is a small area that is carved up into a whole host of nations.  This view of borders dividing and inciting violence also does not fit with the statistics.  For over 600 years there were two new wars a year in Western Europe.  Since 1945, there hasn't been a single one, and it takes a great stretch of the imagination to create a scenario where England and France might start another hundred year war with each other.  (Steven Pinker)

We are further unlike coral, in that, the wars that are most likely to happen today are not between states but within them.  Civil war does not seem to work with the coral metaphor presented because coral is homogenous while nation states have a diverse sometimes competing population of interests, desires and beliefs.  This means that most wars happens internally within the nation itself, between competing ideas of what a particular nation means and what it should become.

Homicide rates in five Western European regions, 1300-2010 – Max Roser - http://ourworldindata.org/data/violence-rights/homicides/

If human beings were inherently violent creatures, and if nation states were responsible for magnifying these violent tendencies then we should also see an increase of violence within the country as well.  As countries get more densely populated, as different groups of people start colliding within the country, that should also cause a spike in violence.  A quick look at the data shows that the introduction of nation states has not increased the overall homicide rate in the countries listed above, rather what we see is a steady decline.  (For more in-depth information on this trend please check out "The Better Angles of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker)   

I look at these failures of the metaphorical difference between nation states and coral, not as a problem, but as a great success of Glenn Kaino's work.  All metaphors fail at some point to adequately represent what they are trying to express, and to me the failures are sometime the most informative part.  That our collective past is filled with violent colonial empires is not in question.  That we as human beings unnecessarily divide ourselves and that these categories create tension and violence also seems apparent.  The British, Mongolian, Ottoman, Roman and Incan Empires, just to name a few, all expanded out in a sea of red, trying to unite the world under a single flag.  

But we are not coral.  What separates us is not our biology.  It is our ideas.  And ideas can be debated, challenged, and changed.  The Mongolian Empire was an idea.  The British Empire was an idea.  Democracy is an idea.  We see weeds such as colonialism, genocide, torture, and we try to pull them.  We cultivate and nurture ideas that we love, that we find useful, hoping they will flourish and grow.  We are ideological curators, and as we get better at excising our ability, as we get more information about the effects of our actions on the world, as we make more rationally well informed choices, we should get better at shaping it into what we would like it to become, and for the moment, that looks like a less violent, more peaceful world.