“The question we humans must face is that of
what do we want to happen to us,
not a question of knowledge or progress”
In 1985, the German artist and cult figure Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) made Capri Battery. A smallish work, a black plastic fitting connects a lemon and an equally canary-colored lightbulb. The instructions that accompany the piece read “Change battery every thousand hours,” yet the light bulb will never run out because it can never be switched on. One of his most light-hearted sculptures, the work conveys the interminable potentiality of creative energy. It has been over thirty-five years since Beuys’ death, but he still proves to be a difficult figure to place. Throughout his career as an international artist, Beuys cultivated a private and public mythology inseparable from his work and arguably as confused as some of his aesthetic and political claims. Known as an ardent environmentalist, he is also tied to racist and reactionary ideas and connections to former Nazi party figures throughout the entirety of his career. (1) Undoubtedly, Beuys is a complex character. A person coming to terms with fascism and the war resulting from it. His attempts to obscure historical facticity in his work is something critics have suggested could only have happened during the ahistoricity of the post-war European artworld. (2) Here, Beuys illustrates one of the many convoluted histories associated with the legacies of art and ecology that underlie our visions of nature today.
Aegina Battery is a DIY power unit by artist and writer James Bridle. A hexagonal wooden sculpture stands at just over one meter high. On top sits a voltage counter encircled by a crown of red and black connecting wires, each of its six sides vertically lined with lemons. Capri Battery (1985) was a reference point for Bridle while making Aegina. Compared to the idealistic promise of Beuys’ sculpture, lemon batteries do not produce much current. In Aegina there is enough power to power a dozen LEDs, but this doesn’t detract from the work’s message. If the lemon in Capri Battery symbolises the potential transformation of the world through art experienced as power, Aegina Battery, as with all the pieces in Bridle’s Signs of Life exhibition, are concerned with the “work” needed towards a Just Transition. The artworks are an experimentation in the relations between energy autonomy and creative, agential power. Historically, the rhetoric between work, efficiency, and ecology has been claimed by both committed Left environmentalists and Far-Right zealots. (3) In Signs of Life, the amateur design aesthetic—the hand of the artist as designer is very much on show throughout the entire exhibition—connotes the urgent need for a new utopian imaginary. One that can scale the tremendous material, social, and ideological challenges and ambiguities involved in thinking through concepts of a truly regenerative society. There is tremendous work to be done.
When installing the work in NOME gallery in Berlin, Bridle asked that the lemons for Aegina Battery should come from Greece, a difficult feat to achieve in Winter but conceptually a significant one, what the artist referred to as “the transportation of Greek sunshine.” (4) In 2022, across the globe, western engineers are designing large solar energy infrastructure and dispatchment projects needed for northern consumption needs. In the North African region alone an area of nearly 4 million km² has been made “potentially available” for solar power plants. (5) Accompanied by in-built multi-regional geostrategic partnerships and agreements, forced trade liberalization and a developing narrative around energy security, many renewable plants are set to deliver low-cost power to Europe at the great cost to many in the Global South.
Tunisia’s TuNur project comprises a 2,250MW concentrated solar power plant in the Sahara desert and a 2GW HVDC submarine cable that runs from Tunisia to Italy. As the power plants become operational, they will generate 9,400GWh of 100% renewable power per annum, which will be transported across the Mediterranean Sea to a landing point in central Italy where electricity generated will be transmitted to other European countries such as Germany, Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom. In its design and execution, TuNur has involved massive land grabs (approximately 10,000 hectares) as well as the continual redirection of critical regional water resources that are needed to cool the panels. (6) It is not alone. The Noor Midelt solar project confiscated 4,000 hectares from ethnic agrarian communities, the Sidi Ayad (the World Bank is recorded to have made claims that the land was “uninhabited” and will make “no impact” on these local communities) and The Ouarzazate solar power station used Amizagh lands without permission. (7) In addition to green grabbing, we also see green colonialism, where resource extraction fails to benefit local and often impoverished communities, life-sustaining goods are exported, and ecosystems are left dispossessed. Most shocking of all is perhaps Morocco’s treatment of Western Sahara, where wind turbines are used on occupied land to exploit their non-renewable phosphate reserves at the detriment of the local Sahrawis. (8)
The story of energy adequacy-for-the-few and insufficiency for-the-many has endured many lifetimes of Capital-colonial relations. It is a conventional worldview that fossil fuel companies rely upon to continue their work of extractivism. But appropriation and dispossession are less expected in the green era, an age typified as supposedly abundant and regenerative, in what is (perhaps) the last energy transition. (9) The projects in Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Sahara demonstrate how the labor of renewables is racialized, perpetuating the exclusive access of western-northern bodies to “clean” energy futures. (10) The asymmetrical and unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources, including solar energy, sit starkly against the ever-growing narrative of “Fortress Europe and UK”, whose border regimes prevent refugees from reaching its shores. The map of energy routes eerily replicates the pathways for migration from the African continent to Europe and beyond. (11)
Figure 1: Three submarine cables are to connect Tunisia with Malta, Italy, and France. Source: TuNur.
The title of the exhibition is taken from Werner Herzog’s first feature of the same title, Signs of Life (1968). The central image of the film features an extraordinary panorama across an endless valley of spinning windmills. We follow three weary protagonists, German soldiers redirected to Crete during the Second World War, as they walk through this hilly and sparse landscape, through scrub and rockery. Isolated from their unit, and the ideology that came with it, the soldiers in Herzog’s film reach the crest of a hill and unsuspectingly gaze down from a height into the Lasithi Plateau and onto hundreds of thousands of rotating blades. When the main protagonist, Stroszek, sees the valley of windmills for the first time he cannot face the immense site before him. He screams, arches his back in terror and is driven into a type of madness. Today, only a few hundred windmills are left and those that remain have mostly fallen into disrepair. Now diesel generators are used to transport water to the surface for irrigation; the unending motif of circular movements only to be found in the black and white film’s grains of silver and emulsion.
When watching the scene, one cannot help but think of how colonial occupation always necessitates the destruction of landscapes. In her critical work on cleaning up and race Françoise Vergès asks us how do we fight the habit of looking away from war, settler colonialism, racism, or class war? From the siege on Palestine and dumping waste in occupied Gaza to Japan’s exploitation of nearly three-quarters of Korea’s forests in 35 years of occupation while protecting forests in their own country, the relations between colonialism and pollution can never be fully disentangled. (12) For Herzog, landscapes are never a backdrop, they reflect a deeper inner landscape. The hallucinatory redux of the Lasithi Plateau is a crucible of mystery that endows the viewer with some new heightened sense of relation to, what for Herzog, is the only governing principle of the universe: chaos. In Bridle’s Signs of Life exhibition, each renewable energy structure also connects the visitor to a set of deeper cultural, social, and political possibilities. The spaces of abundance and self-sufficiency, instability and scarcity attached to the systems of renewable energy. Like the lines drawn on paper by energy companies, governments and venture capitalists, these possibilities can shift, disappear, and reconstitute future relations.
The largest work in the exhibition, Windmill 03 (2022) is a tall, wooden structure. Eight white triangles are wound round eight spars that taper towards the center. Throughout history people have taken advantage of the wind. As far back as Mesopotamia, vessels used cloth to travel great distances, along and across rivers, seas and lakes. Windmills are said to have evolved directly out of the development of sail power. The earliest devices found in Iran relied on sails, similar to those used by sail ships, to drive a mill stone for the grinding of grain. From 100AD, windmills with jib sails, like the one in the show, appeared in Cyprus and the Greek islands. The sails shaped more efficiently to capture the wind and spin vertically. Jib windmills in Greece are still used to pump water for agricultural livestock today.
Windmill 03 is a symbol of the tremendous work to be done. The concept of “work” underpins the message of the exhibition, something Bridle refers to as“prepping for utopia.” (13) To achieve self-sufficient energy means harnessing our collective political and agential power as much as the sun’s rays, the wind’s breath or the tide’s pull. Renewable power is not enough; it also needs to be regenerative. Like the windmill, this work creates a circular motif of problem finding and framing. Renewable energy projects do not always exist as a continuation of the configuration of power and have often become something truly regenerative. Every battle for energy sufficiency can take the shape of and has the seed for a wider anti-systemic struggle. Co-operative energy projects from The Rural Electrification Agency (REA) in Uganda, Souladarity in Michigan, USA, or the Glasgow Community Energy Fund (originating out of the Radical Renewable Art and Activism Energy Fund by artist Ellie Harrison), have worked to build political, social, and cultural openings for other ways of being.
The last work in the exhibition exemplifies the need for regenerative as opposed to renewable power. Solar Panels 001-005 (2022) are five monocrystalline black rectangles, each placed in a wooden frame. Etched onto the surface of every panel is a large, arresting image of unicellular plankton. The etchings are replicas of drawings by the well-known German Zoologist and polymath, Ernst Haeckel (1834—1919, whose illustrations have changed the world. Deeply influenced by Charles Darwin, Haeckel dedicated his life to studying the interactions between organism and environment and embraced a type of “ecological thought.” Haeckel was the first person to term the word ecology and several scientific terms commonly found today. He made hundreds of scientific illustrations of flora and fauna with immense scientific detail and brought biological discoveries to a wide audience, notably popularizing Darwin, and evolutionary theory for the German-speaking world. (14) In his relentless rationalisation, Haeckel also projected his notion of hierarchical order onto colonized bodies, lands, and the environment. He believed in Nordic racial superiority, opposed racial mixing, was a fervent nationalist, a fanatical anti-Semite, and an enthusiastic supporter of eugenics. (15) This secures him a position in history as both a paternal grandfather of ecology and a “prototypical ecofascist.” Such a desire for a violent separation between humanity and nature is supported by a view of life as a teleological process, effacing the possibility of asking to whom ecological hierarchies belong.
Haeckel’s cultural prejudices and obsessions with stratification and purity are bound up in the birth of ecology. That the cosmological roots of proto environmentalism have a base in racism, antisemitism, and ableism feeds into deeper discussions about how ecological utopias are themselves, often, a precursor to fascism. From the development of Germany’s concept of Lebensraum and the notion of Germans as agrarian settlers in both the East and Africa to the theological visions of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy movement. Noteworthily, Steiner was one of Beuys’ “philosophical masters” (16) The convergence of nationalism, right-wing populism, Romanticism, and esoteric spiritualism typified much of German and Austrian culture at the end of the nineteenth century. (17) Undoubtedly these regressive themes have been intertwined into ecology’s very beginning, profoundly shaping the thinking of subsequent generations of environmentalists.
A long and difficult age of repair lies ahead. The work of reducing carbon emissions (and other toxic pollutants) is not only physical it is ideological. In Solar Panels 001-005, the etchings are not just for aesthetic affect, theoretically they also increase the potential current generated. One imagines the massive levels of energy needed to render the ghostly skeletal forms onto the monocrystalline surface. Haeckel’s ‘hand’ directly involved in an energy system that is naturally replenished with the rising and setting of the sun. The relations between ideology, methodology and materiality matters. How should we distribute the benefits and burdens towards decarbonisation? Who’s work is this? Who’s debt? Regenerative power offers a utopia: the distribution of energy flows to all the earth’s inhabitants. A properly reparative movement, however, needs to involve restitution, reparation, and redistribution, destabilising the social relations that are currently reproducing conditions for green grabbing, green colonialism, and eco-fascism.
James Bridle’s Signs of Life is a conduit to remind us that there are many ways of doing energy politics, governance, and infrastructure. In each of his three DIY power structures—through lemon, sail, and line—Bridle invites his audience into a conscientious conversation with the current realities and complex histories of renewable energy. These dialogical spaces are crucial because, collectively, society must strengthen a diverse and radical movement towards a Just Transition. In following these lines of exclusions, enclosures, and empowerment, the exhibition provides a space to contemplate the individual roles we each choose to play in the future. Any radical imaginary must consider the paradoxical aspects of the green era, it’s collective thought and action, and contribute to a more critical comprehension of current ecological and social crises and the range of responses to them. Every moment those realities are forged by the Capitalocene, are also moments for the potential interruption of those social relations. There is tremendous work to be done.
Dani Admiss is an English-Assyrian-Iranian curator, researcher, educator, and soothsayer based in Edinburgh, UK. Her work explores how ideas of science, technology and capitalism show up in our lived experience and our communities. She builds public projects, investigations, and networks that bring together everyday people and in-world experts to dream and demand robust, collective futures against precarity. Currently, she is co-creating a decarbonization plan for art workers (www.sunlightdoesntneedapipeline.com) and is curator of www.toxicitysrea.ch. She has curated exhibitions, conferences, workshops, edited books, in the UK and the EU. She wrote her PhD in Curatorial Practice and World-Making. She is a visiting tutor in Design Research at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.
1 Steinhauer, J. (2013) The Nazi Ties of Joseph Beuys. Available at: www.hyperallergic.com/7517/the-nazi-ties-of-joseph-beuys/ (Accessed 13 March 2022).
2 Buchloh, B. H. D. (2001) ‘Appendix Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol Preliminary Notes for a Critique’ in Gene, R. (ed.) Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy. New York: D.A.P/The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. P. 200.
3 Staudenmaier, P. (2021) ‘Ecofascism Past and Present’ in Ecology Contested Environmental Politics between Left and Right. New Compass Press: Norway. Pp. 10-19.
4 Interview with the artist. Bridle, J. (2022) Interviewed by Dani Admiss. 09 March 2022.
5 Hamouchene, H. (2015) Desertec: The Renewable Energy Grab? Available at: www.newint.org/features/2015/03/01/desertec-long (Accessed 13 March 2022).
6 Hamouchene, H. (2017) Another case of energy colonialism: Tunisia’s Tunur solar project. Available at: www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/another-case-of-energy-colonialism-tunisia-s-tunur-solar-pro/ (Accessed 13 March 2022).
7 Hamouchene, H. (2021) COP26 summit: How ‘green colonialism’ is plundering North Africa. Available at: www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/cop26-summit-green-colonialism-plundered-north-africa (Accessed 13 March 2022)
8 Allan, J., Lemaadel, M., & Lakhal, H. (2021) An unjust transition: Energy, colonialism and extractivism in occupied Western Sahara. Available at: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-11-11/an-unjust-transition-energy-colonialism-and-extractivism-in-occupied-western-sahara/ (Accessed 13 March 2022).
9 Szeman, I. & Barney, D. (2021) ‘Introduction: From Solar to Solarity’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 120(1). Pp. 1-11.
10 Here, my idea of “clean” energy and the sacrifice of billions of people, particularly black and brown bodies, for the consumption needs of a few are adapted from Françoise Vergès’ work on cleaning, cleaning up and race. You can read more at Vergès, F. (2019) Capitalocene, Waste, Race, and Gender. Available at: www.e-flux.com/journal/100/269165/capitalocene-waste-race-and-gender/ (Accessed 10 May 2020).
11 For more information, please read Allan, J., Lemaadel, M., & Lakhal, H. (2021) Oppressive Energopolitics in Africa’s Last Colony: Energy, Subjectivities, and Resistance. Available at: www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/anti.12765/ and Hamouchene, H. (2017) Another case of energy colonialism: Tunisia’s Tunur solar project. Available at: www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/another-case-of-energy-colonialism-tunisia-s-tunur-solar-pro/ (Accessed 13 March 2022).
12 Vergès, F. (2021) talk at ‘Decolonising the Anthropocene’, British Sociological Association held online Monday, 29 November 2021.
13 Interview with the artist. Bridle, J. (2022) Interviewed by Dani Admiss. 09 March 2022.
14 Staudenmaier, P. (1996) Fascist Ecology: The “Green Wing” of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents. Available at: www.theanarchistlibrary.html. (Accessed 13 March 2022).
16 Buchloh, B. H. D. (2001) ‘Appendix Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol Preliminary Notes for a Critique’ in Gene, R. (ed.) Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy. New York: D.A.P/The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. P. 201.
17 Staudenmaier, P. (2021) ‘Ecofascism Past and Present’ in Ecology Contested Environmental Politics between Left and Right. New Compass Press: Norway. Pp. 10-19.
Figure 1: Allan, J. (2021) Renewable energy is fuelling a forgotten conflict in Africa’s last colony. Available at: theconversation.com/renewable-energy-is-fuelling-a-forgotten-conflict-in-africas-last-colony-170995/ (Accessed 13 March 2022).