One of the most radical modifications to the laws regulating the relationship between human and non-human life was introduced in 1987, when the United States Patent and Trademark Office announced that it “now considers non-naturally occurring, nonhuman, multicellular living organisms, including animals, to be patentable subject matter.”1 This new approach to genetic engineering radically changed our relationship to life, now legally a raw material to be manipulated and commodified to satisfy different market demands, and to craft yet nonexistent ones. New species were then introduced: some were employed in techno-pharmacological research (i.e. the OncoMouse, the first animal to be patented in 1988) and some were engineered to satisfy the needs of a growing population facing the threat of a supposed food scarcity (i.e. the AquAdvantage salmon, developed in 1989). Manifold seeds were patented by Monsanto under this convenient premise, ultimately imposing a pharming monopoly that erased local agricultural autonomy and food sovereignty, especially in the Global South, within a few decades.
We have been led to believe that the only way to feed a growing population is to sustain an equally growing industry, one that must find innovative ways of producing food, no matter what the social or ethical cost might be. It is therefore hard to believe that a significant portion of the world’s growing population is still starving in 2020 (estimated at 820 million people, about one in nine individuals)2, a few decades after the implementation of such laws. As repeatedly affirmed by environmental activist and scholar Vandana Shiva, scarcity is an invention of capitalism—the first fake news that multinational companies spread globally to justify their endless expansion—and therefore the laws applied to genetically engineered non-human life are not driven by the necessity to feed the world, but mostly by profit.
This overarching fact and its corollaries are skillfully concealed in the public image and rhetoric of Bayer-Monsanto, the main target in Kirsten Stolle’s exhibition at NOME (2020). On Bayer’s website, the slogan “Science for a Better Life” rises above an image of happy and healthy kids, the illusion of a future generation prospering in a world of equitable access to abundant resources. On Monsanto’s website, a group of experts monitors crops thriving in the sun, captioned by sentences like: “Together We Feed the World and Protect the Planet,” “Growing More While Conserving Resources,” and “Growing Better Together.” These visual and verbal statements give the false impression that an equitable rescue of the planet is possible, or even desirable, within the logic of technocapitalism—one of constant expansion and privatization of natural resources. Stolle’s work targets this contradiction to the core, often overturning the same communication strategies used by these corporations, to reveal the facts and encourage critical thinking.
Particularly, most of the works exhibited at NOME appropriate the advertisement strategy employed by Bayer-Monsanto throughout the years. The series Pesticide Pop (2019) broadly explores the visual strategy and seductive power of commercials in manufacturing our desire to consume, by bringing forth the inherent contradictions of depicting hazardous pesticides as harmless products. The portraits of these objects are set on either celebratory and galvanizing fluorescent colors, or on calming and almost sedating pastel tones, staging a confrontation between the chromatic choices and the worshiped hazardous products—objects whose potential consumers are anesthetized by cliché-driven promises of a better world for all.
In the body of work It’s Time (2019) this approach to the logic of advertisement is taken one step further. Departing from Monsanto’s TV spot “Dinner’s Ready”3 (2014), the series of lightboxes uncovers the disguised message of exploitation and greenwashing glorified in the commercial with misleading archetypes of families enjoying abundant food during Thanksgiving. Time froze in this series, in the form of screenshots extracted from a time-based medium, in an effort to decelerate the rhythm of the skillful narrative technique employed by Monsanto, to reveal how history has been rewritten for selling purposes. Black glitches, reminiscent of the stripes erasing words and sentences on censored texts, cancel parts of the images—an interference, possibly that of the facts emerging from the revised history. The text spread across the different pieces of It’s Time is, in fact, an extract of the original spot’s audio, cut into fragments that generate doubt and ambiguity regarding the original content. By doing so, Stolle replicates the strategy used by Monsanto, in search of opposite results: the original sentence “While using natural resources more efficiently as our population continues to grow” is cut down to “using more.” Elements such as efficiency, caring for natural resources and the fears of a growing population have been erased to expose the core of the Bayer-Monsanto’s quest: more consumption, more commodification, more profit.
Similarly, in the series No Risk to Public Health (2019) Stolle creates six unique interventions based on a full-page advertisement published on June 4th, 2019 in The New York Times by Bayer to publicly defend the use of glyphosate against medical evidence of its hazardous components. This multi-layered work takes an investigative approach, analyzing each sentence on the page almost forensically. One piece employs familiar black redaction marks to cut the sentence down to the assertive statement “glyphosate is carcinogenic.” Another one resembles a failed school test, with red annotations filling up the margins of the text to disavow and correct the misinformation spread by the company.
Revolutionary Control Corner (2019) employs audio loops extracted from video propaganda about pesticides aired by the US Department of Agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s. The original misleading narrative has been carefully cut and reworked by the artist to create a more accurate reporting on the toxicity of herbicides. The audio can be heard with headphones, replicating a situation of confidentiality and close connection between private and public interests. At the same time, this choice brings the viewer to face a wall, revealing the inner contradictions that this relationship entails. This corner, which softly forces the viewer to be confined in a space of isolation, slightly resembles a space of punishment and “correction” where grounded pupils were sent to stand still and reflect about their wrongdoings during school time. The tapestry, which may look ordinary from a distance, reveals some quirky details when getting closer: miniature pesticide cans are placed at the center of flower-like compositions whose complex patterns seem to have evolved from engineered mutations.
In a conversation with the artist in December 2019, I was interested to know whether her work had already experienced a life outside the white cube (generally also a space that works toward the creation of scarcity), or if this had been considered as a possible future expansion of her practice. Stolle’s engaged practice reveals a transformative goal typical of radical thinking and activism, and the direct, clear and accessible language of her work also appeals to a broader demographic—outside the realm of visual arts and its related epistemic bubble—possibly generating even more engagement, discussion and critical thinking. An earlier version of No Genetic Dumping Allowed (2019) briefly experienced this public engagement and ventured outside, during the March Against Monsanto (Asheville, North Carolina, 2013), to become a sign carried by protesters during the demonstration. The work appropriates the aesthetics of a municipal safety sign to warn against unbridled genetic modification, an issue that may not be instantly tangible but that deserves immediate attention.
The works exhibited at NOME share an effort to document and reveal the inherent contradictions between the Bayer-Monsanto public image and the facts, uncovering a history that has been significantly altered to satisfy private interests. They present a counternarrative that reveals the practices concealed by big corporations and engages us in critical thinking and collective discussion. The artist intervenes like a detective in the images, showing a consistent disinterest in mere embellishments. Her investigation is practically forensic and her visual or verbal message straightforward. Her work challenges the dominant narrative and reveals the inner contradictions of the free market, inspiring us to discuss and be aware of how the politics around public health are intrinsically merged with corporate economic interests. Finally, and most importantly, Stolle’s work reminds us that an alternative path to capitalist overgrowth is possible if we switch the focus of our global vision from overproduction and overconsumption towards practices of de-growth.
1. Animals – Patentability, 1077 O.G. 24, April 21, 1987. https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2105.html
2. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, 2019. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns. Rome, FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf