This Cambridge Life

The researcher finding inspiration for the planet’s future in Latin American art

Woman working at laptop

Joanna Page has been exploring how work by Latin American artists can help to bring humanity back into a relationship with nature and give us hope for the planet’s future.

I have been researching new art projects from Latin America that engage directly with scientific ideas and methods. Some of these develop new speculative technologies, for example machines that use microbes to clean polluted environments. Others make the creative intelligence of other species more visible and audible to us, or show us how they cooperate and coevolve with each other to form ecosystems that are resilient to change.

Art has always played an important role in helping scientists record discoveries, create models or interpret data. But when arts come into the picture, they also expand our understanding of how science connects with other forms of knowledge and experience.

I believe that when you look at the crossover between art and science, it challenges us to think about the importance of moving between different disciplines. When you think about some of the urgent debates of our time, like climate change and genetic modification, all of these ideas cut through the divisions between science and culture, politics and ethics.

Joanna Page standing in front of bookcase

We need people who are experts in specific areas, but we also need people who can move and translate between them. In fact, I think all of us would benefit from understanding how science intersects with many other ways of making meaning in the world.

The relationship between science and nature is really interesting to think about in the context of Latin America or the Global South more generally. It sharpens our understanding of the relationships between science, politics and capitalism, and the ethics of knowledge.

When Europe colonised the Americas, a vast extractive economy was put into place. European countries drew a lot of wealth from Latin America, which allowed them to modernise. We’re talking about centuries of extraction that brought about a huge amount of environmental devastation.

Joanna Page looking at a book

The damage was not just to the natural environment, it also affected systems of thought. A lot of decolonial thinkers talk about epistemicide – the idea that whole systems of thought have been side-lined and even destroyed as European ways of thinking have been imposed on the rest of the world.

During the 18th century, local indigenous knowledge in Latin America was deliberately replaced with the kind of universalising systems that were being developed in Europe at the time. For example, indigenous people often categorised plants based on their uses – whether they were useful for food or medicine or whether they were poisonous. Europeans used the Linnaean system, which is very much based on what the plant looks like. It is an abstract system that isolates a species from its role in the ecosystem.

Indigenous philosophies often understand humans as part of nature, rather than being separate from it or even above it. These systems tend to be much more relational. The material is not separated from the spiritual. They approach life forms, not as something that can be plundered, manipulated or controlled, but as something to be respected. The idea is to give other species, and ecosystems as a whole, the right to pursue life, just as we do, as humans.

Joanna Page looking through a book

In my research, the Latin American artists I met are bringing art together with science to expand our thinking and bring humans back into a relationship with nature. Rather than emphasising the power of humanity to intervene in nature, these artists are much more interested in exploring the intelligence and creativity of other life forms, including plants, animals, fungi and microbes.

Western thought has separated out the spiritual, cultural and social from science and this has come at a huge cost. You don't have to believe that a mountain is a deity to see that we could learn a lot from cultures that understand that the health of everything – including humans – in an ecosystem is co-dependent.

The art-science projects I’ve been researching explore how we can create more collaborative relationships with other species in the future. They give us hope that we can use science and technology to help us live more in balance with our environment.

Joanna Page in front of a bridge in the gardens of Robinson College

Joanna will be speaking about her latest research at the Cambridge Festival. She will present innovative multimedia art projects that draw on new scientific research to help us imagine more sustainable relationships between humans, technology, and the environment. The event will take place on Friday 26 March 6pm-7pm GMT. Book your free place.

Her most recent research project, funded by the British Academy, was entitled ‘Science and the Arts in Contemporary Latin America: Constructing a Life in Common’. A related monograph,
Decolonizing Science in Latin American Art, is forthcoming with UCL Press (April 2021).

She is a Reader in Latin American Literature and Visual Culture and a Director of Studies in Modern and Medieval Languages at Robinson College. She currently directs the MPhil in Latin American Studies.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life – stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Lloyd Mann.