Art, Nature and the Exclusion of the Alien

Artistic approaches offer alternatives to illuminate how the natural environment is mobilized in exclusionary projects.
Bernhard Forchtner, radical-right exclusion narratives, the radical right and environment, radical-right environment narratives, Oysters for Naturalization film, Habitat 2190 film, far right exclusion narratives, far right nativeness, Calais Jungle migrant camp, narratives of belonging

Oyster farm © divedog / Shutterstock

August 13, 2020 12:16 EDT

In light of escalating environmental crises and radical-right activism around the globe, there has been renewed academic interest in how the radical right engages with environmental issues. These analyses cover radical right-wing articulations of global and abstract climate change — often, though not always, being skeptical in one way or another — and the protection of local and nation-specific ecosystems. In doing so, these analyses employ highly specialized idioms to explain how radical-right articulations of the natural environment “legitimize” the exclusion of all those deemed to not “naturally” belong.

However, artistic approaches offer alternatives to illuminate how the natural environment is mobilized in exclusionary projects. Two short films, mentioned in a conversation during an event hosted by the Jan van Eyck Academie’s program on environmental identities in July this year, provide useful examples.

The National Ecosystem: Radical Right and Biodiversity


Moderated by Bruno Alves de Almeida, the event aimed to understand relations “between self- and social identity and the natural environment.” While I had the opportunity to participate in this conversation, the following focuses specifically on how “Habitat 2190,” by Hanna Rullmann and Faiza Ahmad Khan, and “Oysters for Naturalization,” by Domenico Mangano and Marieke van Rooy, think about the politics of space, nature and exclusion, and non-human and human “nativeness.” While both films might thus remind viewers of radical-right arguments, they also thematize the presence of such tropes in the political mainstream.

Oysters for Naturalization

Oysters for Naturalization” engages with the issue of belonging by considering the presence of the Japanese oyster in Dutch waters. As van Rooy explained during the conversation, the Japanese oyster was introduced in the beginning of the 1970s in the south of the Netherlands by oyster farmers, following a bad season for Dutch oysters. They were not expected to survive the cold waters for long, but they did end up expanding north. Intriguingly, the artists noticed that around the same time, the Dutch government arranged for Moroccans and Turks to come to the country and work, and, as in other European countries, the expectation was that these workers would “go away” too.

Thus, the Japanese oyster in the Wadden Sea are used by the artists to examine belonging as they approach them with questions on how they (should) behave in their environment, with questions inspired by the integration exam for immigrants who want to acquire Dutch citizenship. By creating an analogy between oysters and humans, Mangano and van Rooy’s questions to oysters encourage reflection on (“ideal”) subjectivities offered through them, on exclusion and inclusion:

The government introduces local species, which rules here a long time ago, into your habitat.

What do you do?

A. Conspire with family members to bring them down.

B. Nothing. They have a right to come back.

C. Show them who’s in charge.

It is in this context, viewers, while seeing a moon-like landscape, listen to a Japanese oyster saying: “We have heard that they think there are too many of us. They say that we aren’t from here, that we have taken over … But what does it mean ‘to be from here?’ Our ancestors came from far away, but we have been rooted here for decades without ever leaving.” It is the notion of rootedness, or rather of not being rooted enough, which is reminiscent of references to so-called invasive species in radical-right environmental communication.

Thus, while the artists, like the radical right, relate non-human to human movement across space, the former utilize this scenario to (though not in these terms) oppose ethnopluralism — the radical-right idea that ethnic groups have a “right to difference,” viewing them non-hierarchically and, consequently, promoting their separation as preservation and opposing the mixing of ethnicities that would endanger these collectives — and what Ken Thompson calls a “frozen moment.” Indeed, in line with communication about “invasive” species by the radical right — and often beyond, as the sheer metaphor of invasion evokes a military scenario that calls for harsh responses — ecosystems are regularly imagined as pure and stable, as being comprised by intertwined parts which, if changed (through “too much” human or non-human influx), would result in pollution and the unbalancing of the system.

This assumes that species belong where they are now or were in relatively recent past — for example, a few hundred or thousands of years ago — and that such change is problematic. As such, the common separation of “native” from “alien” or “invasive” disregards the fundamental fact of species movement having always characterized life on Earth. In fact, van Rooy explained during the conversation that “Dutch” oysters have been added to the sea in reaction to the process started with the introduction of the Japanese oyster (though this happens to increase biodiversity), without recourse to discourses about nativeness and national identity.

Habitat 2190

“Habitat 2190” addresses the issue of nature and exclusion more explicitly by looking at how the establishment of the nature reserve Fort Vert at the site of the former migrant camp in Calais known as the Jungle is connected with the management of the border between France and the United Kingdom. The site was used as agricultural land until the 1960s before becoming a dump site for toxic waste. In 2015, a migrant camp was formed, but was demolished in 2016. Subsequently, the site was turned into a nature reserve. What Rullmann and Khan achieve in their film is to illuminate the intersection of security and environmental concerns, the “weaponisation of ‘nature’ and conservation management” strikingly visible in the construction of barriers. Consequently, Khan claims during the conversation that “military tactics” were “embedded in the naturing process.”

Also designed to keep people out and prevent new settlements, the effort to rewild the site furthermore points to what “Oysters for Naturalization” addresses too: the question of what is supposedly “native,” and thus has a “natural” right to be here, and that which is considered “alien” or “invasive, and can thus be “legitimately” excluded. Here, the European Habitats Directive and its habitat type 2190 that gives the film its name are central as the artists point to the presence of an endangered orchid, Liparis loeselii.

Although the orchid has not been seen recently at the site as Rullmann mentions during the conversation, the aim is to facilitate its reappearance there. However, this return of nature is anything but natural: Viewers learn that not only were trees removed, but so were “invasive” plants: “It was like waste,” says one of the interviewees. As such, and as so often, the return of nature is about human choice and frozen moments. As mentioned above, the radical right too has long pitched the “native” and “naturally belonging” against the “alien” and “invasive,” but Rullmann stresses that such radical-right takes “are also very much ingrained in the way that we generally perceive nature.”

Both films powerfully illustrate how art can stimulate critical thinking about the intersection of exclusion and the natural environment. More precisely, both films make viewers aware that the inclusion and exclusion of humans and non-humans cannot be framed as neutral or natural. Of course, this does not imply that support for endangered species and biodiversity is per se problematic. But while informed steps should be taken to support biodiversity and ecosystem functions, both films quite rightly question drawing on allegedly “neutral” and “natural” categories of “native” versus “alien” and “invasive,” and on “origin,” when doing so. Such films provide useful counternarratives to the attempts to use nature and environmental issues for the politics of exclusion.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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