Writer Tracey Warr: Language is life form itself

Tracey Warr

The researchers and artists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, Rice and New York Universities and AA School of Architecture in London will invite researchers, students and general public for discussion about human relationships with environment.

The seminar cycle at KTU is initiated by a creative group Jutempus. Jutempus team 2014–2018: Gediminas Urbonas, artist and professor at the MIT Program in Art, Culture & Technology, Cambridge, USA; Nomeda Urbonas, artist and PhD fellow at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology, Norway; Tracey Warr, writer and senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, UK; Viktorija Šiaulytė, curator and researcher at Jutempus Interdisciplinary Art Program, Lithuania.

What is behind zooetics? Linguistically and semantically?

Kaunas Technology University is next-door to the Lithuanian National Zoo. With the Zooetics project we are aiming to bring together researchers from various disciplines to consider the border between human knowledge and experience and the knowledge and experience of other life-forms, in order to imagine future ecologies. Zooetics is a coinage – a made-up word that we happened upon to suggest this philosophical and practice-led research terrain. It parallels a field such as poetics and references terms such as zoology.

The concept/term encompasses humanities and biology and ecology – different fields of science. What are the collaboration possibilities between those branches? And between the researchers representing them?

Ecology is rather like the field of consciousness studies in that, despite a couple of centuries of discipline silos, we are all well aware that this topic cannot be tackled by one discipline alone, or even just by the sciences, and that the methodologies and approaches of many diverse disciplines are needed. This can be difficult in terms of trying to communicate with each other and to work with a shared understanding, but with open-mindedness it is possible. Art has always been a promiscuous discipline, taking inspiration, ideas, processes, collaborators wherever necessary and there are well-established cross disciplinary traditions now in art and science, art and ecology for instance. Collaborating within anyone, and especially across disciplines, requires a significant effort in reciprocal communication, but we believe it is possible and that we will get somewhere with such an effort. There are often rather simplistic assumptions made, that humanities bring creativity and ethics and science brings rigour, for example, whereas creativity, ethics, rigour and other values are not the exclusive domain of any one discipline. Yet certainly bringing disciplines together with a common aim, does enable insights that were not possible in a mono-disciplinary process.

You are the moderator of the sessions on Zooetics in Kaunas. Was it a conscious choice – I mean, having in mind your profession as a writer?

Yes. I suppose I am often trying to encapsulate complex discussions, experiences, emotions, that are happening around me into beautiful sentences, paragraphs and pages that others can engage with. I wish I always succeeded at that! But at least I am always trying.

You are working on a number of fiction and non-fiction projects, are taking part in various initiatives involving art, citizenship and other parts of life. What is the purpose of a writer in society today?

What a great question. Maybe a writer reflects and evokes experiences in the world and in the human psyche and works with the material (and fluid associations) of language to co-create experiences and reflections with readers – a constructive loop of being critically conscious in the world perhaps.

Glossary plays an important role in Zooetics project. What makes it so important?

Because language is material, slippery and suggestive. We can’t hope to pin it down but in order to use it to try to communicate with each other, to share ideas and experiences, we can at least temporarily corner some of its meanings, still them briefly in their perpetual shifting, so that we almost understand each other, for a moment.

It seems that one mission of Zooetics is reforming language. What is the importance of those definitions? What does defining and redefining concepts do to our thinking?

I hope the definitions will keep shifting and other people will keep suggesting ways in which they need to be redefined again and again. When we easily assume we know what we and others mean when we use language, then we run a risk of staying on the surface and misunderstanding altogether. I don’t believe there is any singular, static understanding but that’s no reason to give up communicating and sometimes the misunderstandings and unexpected associations of language can give real insights, almost as if language itself is one of these life forms we are trying to engage with.

How do you see your role in Zooetics project? Which part of it is of particular interest to you?

I see my role as putting out provocations, mostly in text form, for others to disagree with, add to, amend, augment with images, moving images, sounds and other sensory modes of communication. At the moment I am very interested in people who have very close associations with animals – animal behaviour therapists, cat whisperers, zoo keepers, pet lovers, farmers, fishermen, some hunters – and how they interpret through embodied engagements.

In the definition of the project there is a concept of creating ‘environmental fictions’. What is it? How is this related to writing fiction?

Interspecies dialogue is a difficult, some would say nonsensical terrain. I don’t think we will be putting Cod or Goshawk, Mussel or Giraffe, into Google Translate at any time in the future. But fiction – imagining things that don’t yet exist – might help us think about this terrain. Fiction in this project might be written but it could also be an image, a model, an installation, and it might help us think about another very difficult topic – a radical shift in human relationships with the environment and other life.

What is the relationship of fiction and reality in writing and in life in general?

I write novels that weave together researched ‘fact’ (insofar as anything ever is fact) and imaginings in the gaps in between facts. Creating credibility for readers is more important than adhering to (an anyway probably spurious) authenticity. Your readers have to believe in the fictional world you plunge them into, and they have to believe in the physical, mental and emotional world of each character that you ask them to engage with. I suppose that all fiction writers hope their readers will emerge from the world of the book back to the world of reality and their own individual realities with refreshed eyes and hearts. And the very best writers do achieve that (or you could read artists, architects, philosophers and so on, here instead). I love the definition of the future as a time yet to come, the potentiality of that. We are always trying to shape the world we are moving through, to make it make sense to us at this moment, at this crossroad.

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