Brandeis hosts ‘Arboreal Humanities’ event

A group of scholars and artists came together on Friday, March 4 to run an event titled “The Arboreal Humanities: Trees, Art, and Activism.” The event consisted of interviews, discussions, readings, and workshops from various professors and artists from multiple institutions around the world.

The event focused on the intersectionality between environmental studies and the humanities. The event brought together artists and authors whose art focuses heavily on nature and the environment and who have a specific connection to trees. Additionally, the event gave participants the opportunity to hear about the thought process and intentions behind this form of environmental activism from the artists themselves.

Three artists and scholars were invited as guests and headlined the event: Zheng Bo, a Hong-Kong based video and installation artist; Carl Philips, an award-winning poet and author, as well as a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis; and Eleanor Kaufman, a professor of comparative literature and English at UCLA and vice-chair of the University of California’s Task Force on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The event came together by organizing six different professors from across the country, including Brandeis’ own Prof. Caren Irr (ENG). The six professors began to meet in July 2020 to discuss nature, trees, and forests as they intersect with literature, philosophy, art, and film. They formed a reading group revolving around these “arboreal humanities,” but recently, the group has begun to expand further than a reading group, leading to the organization of this event. The main motive of this group is to create a more interdisciplinary study of the environment with the humanities, and the group hopes to expand to the establishment of additional projects in the future, as was stated in an introduction to the event. In addition to Irr, the six professors include Glyn Davis, professor of film studies at the University of St. Andrews; Chris Barrett, associate professor of English at Louisiana State University; Jonathan Flatley, professor of English at Wayne State University; and Laura Harris, assistant professor of cinema studies and art & public policy at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

The first session was a conversation and Q&A session between Bo and Davis. Bo currently teaches at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong in addition to working on his art by him, which has been featured at a multitude of museums across the world. According to his website, Bo is “committed to more-than-human vibrancy… he investigates the past and imagines the future from the perspectives of marginalized communities and marginalized plants. He grows weedy gardens, living slogans, eco-queer films, and wanwu workshops to cultivate ecological wisdom beyond the Anthropocene extinction.” Bo explained how he found his specific art style and the goals he hopes to achieve through his artwork. He spoke about the field of eco-politics and discussed the current political climate in China, explaining that it makes things difficult for him to be involved in the type of environmental activist work typical in the US. I have clarified that doing that kind of work would be “suicidal,” and instead I have decided to focus on learning and teaching about the philosophy and the art of the environment rather than demonstrating and protesting.

The second session was an interview between Phillips and Barrett. Phillips has published 16 books of poetry, criticism, and translation, and his writing has appeared in about 70 anthologies as well as dozens of journals. He is also the recipient of multiple literary awards. During his session, Phillips read some of his poetry aloud and discussed his philosophies and personal relationship with trees. In the third session, Kaufman spoke with Flatley, discussing ancient poetry and the connections between poetry, literature, and nature. The final session was a “Manifesto Workshop” led by Irr and Harris.

Although the event was organized by the six professors who are a part of the “Arboreal Humanities” reading group, the event used Brandeis equipment and software and was funded by the Department of English and Fine Arts and the Mandel Center for the Humanities.

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