An interview with Ravi Agarwal
This week, morethanhuman matters interviews Ravi Agarwal, an inter-disciplinary artist, environmental researcher and campaigner, writer and curator. Ravi’s work explores key contemporary questions around ecology, society, urban space and capital. He works with photographs, video, installations, and public art and has been shown widely in events, like the the Kochi Biennial (2016), Sharjah Biennial (2013) and Documenta XI (2002). Ravi is also Director of the Indian environmental NGO Toxics Link.
Hello Ravi, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. A lot of your work examines the intersections of environment, society, and capital in the current era. In your perspective, how and why is it important to think about social and ecological well-being in more-than-human terms?
It seems to me that the concept of the “human” itself needs to be re-examined first. There are many humans who are not considered to exist on an equal footing with others, and who are treated as inferior or less worthy. We live in highly socially and economically stratified societies, divided by gender, class, caste, and race, and shaped by all sorts of violence, both overt and covert. Today, these forms of structural violence are manipulated for political ends, and violence has become normalized to the point that it is not even considered violence. We still have a long way to go. From my work with communities who live in and off landscapes, I have gained a greater recognition of interdependencies both among these communities, as well as between communities and ecological spaces. These communities live in a space of exchange. We have focused so much on the “individual” that our sense of the “community” appears to have become lost. That balance needs to be brought back. I think this will require a radical reconfiguration of our idea of ourselves in ontological terms.
One of your current art projects, Trace City, features several photographs of landfills in India. What is the inspiration and motivation behind this art project?
The view from the ground has always been a central focus for me. I believe that waste represents all that is wrong with our current paradigm of economic development and capital. It is all about taking and discarding. It is unintelligent, unconscious, and primitive behavior – and it is rooted in the capitalist exploitation of nature. The so-called “developed” economies generate the vast majority of this waste. It is even more astounding that most of us are not aware of this fact. It, too, has become normalized. But this normalization has brought us to the brink of an ecological condition where pollution of all sorts is making the planet unliveable. I find these dystopic views fascinating since they reveal to me the bubble we have created around us. And they also reflect our social hierarchies. In India, for instance, waste pickers rummage in landfills to sift through the city’s waste, all the while exposed to toxins and other health hazards. Their condition reflects the hierarchies of capitalistic consumption and its inherent inequities.
Could you tell us a bit more about your activist and artistic engagements with more-than-human worlds, and their relationship to your academic work?
I am interested in the question of social and environmental justice. Equity, tolerance, and justice have to be the basis of human societies. But at this point in time, we are nowhere close to that. I like to explore what has been rendered invisible by the hegemony of the visible. Nature is a place of inhabitation but we need to sustain a reciprocal relationship with it. These are the kinds of questions I ask when I am working on rivers and the way they have been controlled and modified through capital, technology, and even the desert. As an artist, I have worked on migrant labor, displaced communities, marginalized fishers, and small riparian farmers. I find their everyday respect for nature educative. We seem to have lost that respect and humility.
Finally, Ravi, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
I feel that fundamentally going out into the field to listen is key. To approach the field as a learning space rather than a knowing space is how one can learn and hope to understand. One cannot ever fully or easily understand how people from other cultures or social groups live and interact on the ground, or what their ideas or compulsions are. In acknowledging this, the researcher takes on the identity less of a privileged person than that of a curious learner.
"I like to explore what has been rendered invisible by the hegemony of the visible. Nature is a place of inhabitation but we need to sustain a reciprocal relationship with it."