By Krystian Woznicki
An interview with the art collective The University of the Phoenix about responding to the climate crisis with a global secret society for interspecies cooperation.
While climate change seems to be intangible, nowhere and everywhere at the same time, it is entangled with everything and everyone. Against this backdrop, the Berliner Gazette’s 20th anniversary initiative MORE WORLD stimulated a critical dialogue. The goal was to better understand and grasp the causes of climate change through entanglements of ecosystems with communal, state and global structures – and ultimately to explore possibilities to tackle climate change from within such interconnections. In the following interview, the Thunder Bay-based art collective The University of the Phoenix (UotP) reflects on the challenges for planetary cooperation in the face of climate crisis.
Krystian Woznicki: Your work extensively deals with dispossession in the context of global capitalism. How do your work in general related to climate change?
The University of the Phoenix: In general terms, The University of the Phoenix is a kind of parafictional educational institution that invites the living and the dead to work together to avenge the crimes and cruelties of global capitalism. We often work in social situations, such as conferences, where, in spite of the fact that most people would like to abolish capitalism, we end up reproducing it against our wills because of the way capitalism ends up conscripting our creativity, autonomy, relationships and hopes.
By inviting in dead people, who no longer pay rent, accumulate social capital or compete for work, who no longer care about success or prestige in any worldly way, we try to influence the not-yet-dead (living people) to rethink their attachment to the time and value of their lifetime. There are no work deadlines without a body, a community or without a planet. We think of life as a kind of training or practice for becoming dead, and so the dead have a lot to teach the not-yet-dead.
Especially for those of us who are compelled by this moment of so-called cognitive capitalism to measure our self-worth in terms of our ability to propose, fund, complete and report on projects, working with the dead is a reminder that any project worth doing actually began generations before our bodies were even born, and will continue after we join the ranks of the dead. The dead remind us to take a longer view that extends outside the individual lifetime and encompasses past and future generations. This shift in imagination from what is ‘mine’, what is possible in ‘my’ life, and what makes a ‘good life’ means that maybe we can assess and participate in our lifetimes differently.
Working with the dead can help the not-yet-dead disconnect from the networks of capitalist neurohacking and, instead, connect to much bigger projects, much longer desires, such as the desire to ensure the earth can sustain less violent forms of human thriving, the desire to find the means to work together to actually confront climate change. In a sense, we are working with the dead to dispossess the not-yet-dead of our pathological attachment to individual success and to so many dangerous phobias and false hopes that keep us all enrolled in or captivated by a system of global dispossession.
KW: For the Berliner Gazette’s MORE WORLD event you developed the performance piece The Order of the Immortal Stranger, for the first time in your history explicitly addressing the climate crisis. Could you explain some of the general assumptions underlying this piece, especially with regard to emancipatory politics in the face of the climate crisis?
UotP: In the past, we have typically used techniques including seances, rituals and walking tours to welcome the dead to work with the living. This time the dead wanted to tell us a story.
Our performance revolved around a fable from a potential tomorrow, told by a sort of collective hypothetical daughter who might be born nine months after the More World Conference. We know that her name is Adrestia, and that she might record herself in approximately 2036, when she would be 16 years old. Her parents might by this time have already disappeared into the growing social upheavals of the climate crisis, and she lives in some sort of collective. Essentially, in this future, she and other children come to recognize adults as the source of the world’s problems and create a kind of “order” or secret society that uses biohacking to ensure that everyone over the age of about 16 dies.
In this future, adults are all addicted to a genetically modified form of coffee that allows them to withstand a kind of social disease called The Wasting, which has symptoms like depression, inertia, nostalgia and narcissism and, if left untreated, leads quickly to death. As the story progresses, Adrestia and the other children team up with a very special anti-colonial plant, The Immortal Stranger, to ruin coffee and allow the adults to succumb to The Wasting. Adriesta might make this recording as she herself is becoming an adult and dying of The Wasting.
The children form The Order of the Immortal Stranger to accomplish their mission of abolishing adults and adulthood, based on lessons they might learn from the tree. Capitalism today is based on the frantic extraction and depletion of the earth’s “resources,” as well as our bodies and souls, all in the name of a completely unsustainable and, in fact, sick form of “life” and “growth,” a kind of obsessive vitalism based on consumption of anything and everything. In contrast, the Immortal Stranger teaches the children that it is more important to create good soil for future things to grow. What if, instead of being obsessed with life we spent our lives learning how to die, so that we might literally and metaphorically become the soil in which future generations might thrive? What if we considered the earth so important that we were willing to die to keep it alive?
As she dies and looks forward to becoming soil, Adrestia might record her story to be part of a self-learning module for the children who will come after her, but will not have teachers because there are no more adults, and there never will be. Her story is paused at several moments so that an AI she might design can demand that the listener/learner follow instructions and perform some embodied and somatic yogic techniques to better understand and internalize several key lessons from the Immortal Stranger. One of the key pedagogical methods of The University of the Phoenix is planting important ideas in the body using these kind of techniques, because, in our age of capitalist neurohacking (through, among other things, our smartphones) it is important to remember our always-dying bodies, our corpses. The audience/participants for these activities were, at the same time, the future children but also today’s adults who had gathered at the conference. In fact, it is in a way the ghosts of these future children whom we invited to join us.
KW: Your work is designed as an intervention that thoroughly confounds distinctions between fiction and reality. This said, an underlying idea of your piece – involving performers Hannah Levin and Florence Freitag – is that the Immortal Stranger was named as “president” of The University of the Phoenix. What is this ‘narrative figure’ actually about? What is its ‘profile’? And what sources of inspiration does it have?
UotP: The Immortal Stranger is a plant: a tropical tree, also known as Tulipan Africano. It is considered one of the world’s most invasive weeds. It is widely hated because, while beautiful, it is considered useless. It originated in West Africa, where to this day it has many uses, medicinal and utilitarian. We have found two myths about the way it spread worldwide. One story is that it was taken by imperialists who wanted to include it in their controlled, tropical gardens. But when it arrived it took over, destroying the garden. The other story we have heard is that enslaved people and migrants from West Africa brought the tiny, heart-shaped seeds with them, perhaps knowing of the plant’s uses, perhaps knowing of its powers of revenge.
We discovered the Immortal Stranger, or maybe it discovered us, when we were in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2017 on a research trip to talk to local artists and activists about the debt crisis. This was a few months before the hurricane that devastated the island. Then as today Puerto Rico remains essentially a colony of the US and the aftermath of the hurricane proved this when the population was abandoned by the US, and speculators and profiteers moved in. In any case, when we were there we wanted to find a representative of the resilient spirit of the land and a young radical coffee farmer suggested the Immortal Stranger. As she showed us, the plant is everywhere, with huge, trumpet-like red flowers. When we first met, it was a small weed that was growing up in between the concrete on a highway overpass.
It turns out that the Immortal Stranger had long been the enemy of the kind of cash-crop mono-culture agriculture that were the basis of the colonial extractive economy of PR because it thrives in damaged and abused landscapes, like large-scale plantations. After the US transitioned the PR economy away from agricultural production and towards low-cost, hyper-exploitative manufacturing in the 1950s, the Immortal Stranger took over a lot of the now-abandoned plantations and was responsible for one of the greatest reforestations in recorded global history: it grows quickly, provides a canopy, and repairs the soil so other plants can return.
We were so inspired we named the Immortal Stranger the “president” of our university and have been asking our agents in tropical zones to harvest and send us its seeds. We use these seeds in almost all our activities. We have, for instance, planted them at the HQ of a “vulture fund” that is deeply invested in the financial colonization of PR and other economic crimes. We also often “plant” the seed in people’s phones, reasoning that, not only can the spirit of the Immortal Stranger help protect us from the ways digital capitalism infiltrates and makes a plantation out of our mind-bodies, eventually these phones will end up back in a tropical zone as e-waste, where the Immortal Stranger might once again take its strange, slow vengeance.
KW: How does the global secret society for interspecies cooperation emerge from this?
UotP: In Adriesta’s potential future, The Order of the Immortal Stranger might form to abolish adulthood and radically transform the world through interspecies cooperation with the Immortal Stranger. In the performance/ritual, the Order transports itself back, through time and space, to claim or recruit the audience at the BG conference. Perhaps, in the future those children might create, they have some technology that makes them capable of such quantum terrorism. We hope so. In any case, we at The University of the Phoenix believe that learning from the Immortal Stranger is crucially important for our struggles today.
KW: In order to instigate the global secret society for interspecies cooperation, you collected smartphones from the audience at the MORE WORLD event and then buried them. At this point, Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together” (2011) may come to mind where she argues that technological developments that have most contributed to the rise of interconnectivity have bolstered a feeling of alienation between people. Is this what you had in mind?
UotP: Detaching people from their phones has become a very important part of all The University of the Phoenix procedures with the not-yet-dead. For the University, the smartphone is both a literal material manifestation and ambassador, and also a potent symbol of our moment of global capitalism. It is, of course, one of the chief artifacts and commodities of that system, assembled from a world-wide collection of resources and forms of labour. It is also the chief mechanism, today, whereby we are each inscribed within that now-digitized capitalist system, in terms of the way the smart-phone ecosystem conscripts us to a whole variety of capitalist behaviours. At the same time, partly because of all this, the smartphone is a kind of fetish that we all obsess over, so from an artistic angle taking away people’s phones and doing something strange with them is very effective, and places the audience in a very different kind of headspace.
We often speak of “disconnecting the nervous system from the global economy” so that we can make new, better connections, relationships, for instance to the world of the dead. We have been thinking a lot not only about the kind of alienation you mention, which is an alienation from other living humans, but also an alienation from death. Digital capitalism is relentlessly vitalist: it promises life, life, life. Now the same pirates who have comandeered our minds through these devices seek to escape death, too, with all sorts of stupid ideas about uploading our consciousnesses and so on. Of course, this will only be for the super-wealthy, but there is a way this pathological vitalism “trickles down” to us plebs as well, especially through the rhetorics of self-care and therapy, in their commercialized form. We at The University of the Phoenix want to ask, how can we move away from the cruel optimism that surrounds the notion of “healing” in a fundamentally toxic world. Instead, how can we better learn how to die?
There are other networks that connect us, more generative, powerful and important networks. The network that connects us to the dead, for instance. Or the networks that connect us to other living things. Why do we so obsess over using toxic, blood-soaked, disposable machines to allow us to incessantly access networks designed to hack into our social and neurochemical systems the better to exploit us?
KW: How will the global secret society for interspecies cooperation enable us to tackle the climate crisis?
UotP: Most of the pedagogy of The University of the Phoenix is to work with the dead to train them to help the not-yet-dead avenge the crimes and cruelties of global capitalism, including capitalism’s climate crisis. Those who attend, or in fact even read about our so-called performance, if they are sympathetic to these objectives, become haunted by ghosts who will help them achieve this end. This is The Order of the Immortal Stranger, a global secret society that is so secret even many of its own living members do not know they are members. You may have become a member simply by reading these words. For this, there is no end-user licence agreement, we are sorry to say, but you wouldn’t read it anyway, and the EU doesn’t even know how to regulate it.
Not-yet-dead Members of the Order are charged to enter the multiverse of climate change activism with a perspective renewed and emboldened by the connection to death and to the trust in the natural anti-colonial qualities of plants, like the Immortal Stranger.
These are the lessons we put through the social body who attended the performance, using story, sound, movement and force:
- We thrive uninvited where we were never meant to grow.
- Their waste is our teacher.
- We use our life time to transform their ruins, into our home
- Let us learn to die to become one another’s soil.
These mantras help members of the Order take the long view that stems from a recognition of our interdependence with multiple generations, past and future. These mantras, developed by our hypothetical children, for their children, can help we adults today to remember that we cannot act as if we are the first or the final generation.The best proof of our work will be if there is good soil for future generations— and we mean soil as the stuff made of decomposed bodies, both literal and metaphorical. The University of the Phoenix is part of a long pedagogical tradition of teaching the not-yet-dead how to die. If we learned to die to become one another’s soil in these ways, how might it change how we work, cooperate and spend our time?
About The University of the Phoenix
The University of the Phoenix (UotP), a collaboration between artist Cassie Thornton and scholar-activist Max Haiven, is a free-school and research institute for the dead that is also sometimes open to not-yet-dead auditors. Working at the intersection of research, art and activism UotP instigates locally-informed collaborations for radical financial literacy. In an age when technologically-accelerated financialization and debt overshadows social and political life UotP offers revenge consultancy services to those wronged by global capitalism. UotP instigates conversations, produces and distributes disruptive media, and plots uninvited appearances of the otherwise invisibilized. More info on this website: http://universityofthephoenix.com