Culture Shock: Where Language Fails

The Role Of The Arts At Unm's Decolonizing Nature Conference

Maggie Grimason
5 min read
Goodbye to All of That
Virginia Colwell’s “Goodbye to All of That” will be on display as part of the exhibition opening in conjunction with the conference. (Virginia Colwell)
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“Art is not necessarily a
thing,” Jeanette Hart-Mann began. We sat looking out toward the cubed concrete buildings of UNM’s campus from above on a sun-bleached late afternoon. Hart-Mann is the Field Director of the Land Arts of the American West program at UNM, which makes her perspective on that meta-question, “What is art?” fascinating—broad while particular; inclusive and intelligent. “Art isn’t tangible in and of itself even though we call a painting art,” she continued. “[Art] is the ripple it makes in the world. The way it changes the way we think, the way it changes the way we see the world around us. It’s a conduit. It’s an active thing.” To create those ripples is part of the ambition of the upcoming Decolonizing Nature conference, presented by UNM, in partnership with a host of others, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 516 ARTS and Los Jardines Institute. At the conference, Hart-Mann will moderate a panel of artists, scientists and thinkers on the topic “Water is Life.”

What is vital about the upcoming conference is that it is not relegated to a single institution—neither the arts nor the philosophizing of academia, nor the critical eye of the sciences. It brings together thinkers and practitioners in a great many disciplines to broach a very broad and multifaceted concept. The arts, do, however, provide a particular and important lens with which to view these topics. Like art itself, this conference does not exist in a vacuum, and one of the different modes in which the conference is manifesting is in tandem with an exhibition of the same name at 516 ARTS, curated by Chloë Courtney and Lara Esther Goldmann. The show will include works by the likes of Guatemalan artist Sandra Monterroso, a Mexico City-based collective made up of Carlos Maravilla Santos and Ehécatl Morales-Valdelamar, and the ephemeral work of local Basia Irland, who will also participate in the “Water is Life” panel. Courtney and Goldmann explained their belief in the potential of the exhibition; that “art can create a platform for provoking questions that do not so much elicit specific answers as they prompt us to challenge our ways of understanding. Further, the artists represented in this exhibition speak to the history of resistance and decolonial thinking in the arts world for the past 30 years. This history continues to influence present conversations regarding ecology and sustainability.”

The intersection of art and those concepts of ecology and sustainability is a big point of discussion in panels across the conference—which will happen over the course of five days at UNM, the NHCC, 516 ARTS and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. One of the reasons that Hart-Mann believes that the conference’s organizer, Subhankar Banerjee, chose to emphasize the role of the arts at the conference to such an extent is because “sometimes these things are really difficult to talk about, sometimes we need other ways to express and explore and illuminate some of our limits of knowledge around them. I think art can do that in really dynamic ways,” she explained. “Where language doesn’t work, art does in some ways.” Dovetailing with that thought, Courtney and Goldmann said of the role of art in this conference, “The strength of art lies in the possibility of its poetry to change our ways of perceiving and thinking.”

Hart-Mann points out that what is most essential about the participants in the conference is that, regardless of the medium they work in, all are grounded in practice. “Art and ecology today—those projects, those conversations—they don’t just exist in the gallery. It’s not in these institutionalized contexts. People are interested in how they get back out into the world,” she said. To that end, she points out that those on the panel she will moderate—Basia Irland, John Fleck and Perry Charley—are all actively working on issues relating to water ecology in their communities whether through art, literature or science. That’s what is rare and inspiring about this conference, “they’re not just theorizing at the university and writing glorious papers,” as Hart-Mann put it, they are out there doing something about it. And their work provides a framework for others to conceptualize how they, too, can apply their passions to these complex problems.

These issues can largely be distilled down to something rather simple—the construct between nature and culture. As Hart-Mann described, “We are still in a place where we objectify nature as other, and we remove it from life. In a way, that also allows us the moral and ethical position to exploit it, destroy it, to use it for our own whims and rationale. In the effect of doing that, we do that to ourselves, too.” In part, the effects of this construct are mitigated by addressing them in a multitude of languages—through art, through science, through reading and through the dialogue itself—so that we can get to work, “as artists, as community members, as intellectuals,” as Hart-Mann catalogued, “as beings of Earth.”

The Decolonizing Nature conference will take place between Tuesday, April 18, and Saturday, April 22.
Program details and registration are available online at
Expoliada III

Sandra Monterroso’s “Expoliada III” from the Decolonizing Nature exhibition

Sandra Monterroso

Where Language Fails

Virginia Colwell

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