The Institute of Queer Ecology: Metamorphosis
The reality of ecological collapse, underwritten by capitalist imperialism, is often called an existential threat—but it is also a problem of imagination. In Capitalist Realism (2009), Mark Fisher popularized the idea that “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Like much of Fisher’s work, this proposition can be taken as either a black pill or a creative catalyst. The difference depends first of all on our capacity to imagine.
This is the challenge taken up by Metamorphosis, an online video series produced by the “collaborative organism” of young artists known collectively as the Institute of Queer Ecology. The four-episode series resembles an educational nature show, with essays spoken over digital animation and found footage, narrated by nonbinary artists Mykki Blanco and Danny Orlowski. As its name implies, Metamorphosis takes multiple forms as an artistic project. It is an experiment in “edutainment.” It is a model for radical television and collectivized artistic practice. It is a lucid synthesis of queer theory and ecosocialism, one which makes important connections between capitalism and ecological collapse:
When climate change causes prolonged droughts in California, sparking wildfires across the state, and the firefighters sent to put out the flames are incarcerated people…paid two dollars a day…the climate crisis becomes inseparable from the prison industrial complex. When those same fires affect expensive homes and insurance giants like AIG create private fire departments for their highest-tier customers, climate collapse becomes indistinguishable from income inequality and privatization. (Prelude: Serotiny)
Episodes 1 to 3 of Metamorphosis follow the successive life-stages of Lepidoptera—that is, butterflies and moths—as holographic metaphors for global capitalism and queer potentiality. Episode 1, “Grub Economics,” compares the voracious consumption of caterpillars to the consumption & extraction logic of petro-capitalism, emphasizing that in nature, the larval phase is necessarily unsustainable and transitory. In episode 2, “Liquidation in the Pupal Stage,” the image of the dissolved pupa sheltered in its chrysalis is used to visualize a complex and hard-to-see problem: the consolidation of power and capital by a global oligarchy.
The third installment, “Emergence,” takes up the poetry of the imago, or the mature form of a holometabolous insect, to explore models of ecology and society the human species has yet to attain or even conceptualize. The episode examines the role of heteronormativity in perpetuating capitalist hegemony. It speculates how a queer future might break from oppressive eco-economic relations by cultivating new models of community, cultural reproduction, and gender expression. It concludes that “Imagination is possibly the most critical tool for a queer future.”
Queer Futurity is a term that comes from José Esteban Muñoz’s widely influential book, Cruising Utopia (2009). Episode 3 of Metamorphosis quotes directly from its opening lines: “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer…the future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a constructing and educating mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.” In Cruising Utopias, Muñoz casts “queer” not as a banner of identity, but as a discursive mode, a utopian pursuit—a verb. The notion of futurity gives a forward momentum to queer values of survival, healing, identity, and play. Muñoz never prescribes the shape of this future; his evocative concept is meant as a hard poke in the imagination, one meant to resist what Muñoz felt were the “short term concerns” of LGBTQ+ activism focused on integration and acceptance by hetero-normative society. Metamorphosis echoes this concern and extends it to the short-term concerns of extractive capitalism:
The American military is the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world…One of the supposedly significant milestones of LBGTQ rights movements involved the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011. Instead of asking for a place in the institution, why not liquidate it and redistribute its capital? (Episode 1: Grub Economics)
Another recent work of theory that appears synthesized in the Institute of Queer Ecology’s perspective is Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene (2016). Here Haraway seeks to generate imaginative tools for “living and dying on a damaged earth,” such as engaging interspecies consciousness, symbiotic meaning-making, nontraditional kinship strategies, and speculative storytelling. Staying With the Trouble is admittedly a dense theoretical text, but Metamorphosis appears to enact some of its strategies in a format that is digestible and even entertaining. It does not so much resemble a “conceptual art video” as it does a TV show, and this may be the most interesting proposition it makes.
Artists have only occasionally delved into television as a site of engagement instead of designated art spaces like galleries and museums. One vintage example is Paper Tiger Television’s “deconstructing the media” series from the early 1980s (which is also currently available to watch on dis.art). Public intellectuals including Haraway, Murray Bookchin, and Noam Chomsky appeared on the artist-run, public access program to analyze popular media like National Geographic and Time magazine, aiming to teach audiences to think critically about mass media in a decade when it was rapidly engulfing the average person’s experience of reality.
Metamorphosis combines the critical aims of Paper Tiger Television with a form most reminiscent of educational nature shows prevalent in the 1990s on networks like PBS, BBC, and Discovery Channel. It is grounded in some fascinating information about insects, and while it may have an aesthetic sensibility updated for 2020, the overall impact of the didactic visuals, wildlife footage, and disembodied narration in Metamorphosis harks back to educational programs like Wild Discovery (1995 – 2002) that—for many of us who grew up watching them—were early fertilizer for the sort of interspecies ecological consciousness that the Institute of Queer Ecology seeks to extend.
So, is Mykki Blanco the David Attenborough for Generation Z? That sounds like a future worth fighting for. To quote once more from Muñoz, “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic.” Metamorphosis gestures toward the possibility of independent queer media, and proposes an equally radical model of collective artistic production. To make art as a “collaborative organism” is necessary for ambitious multimedia storytelling, but it also promises the ability to resist current (capitalist, heteronormative) paradigms of art that commodify both the artist and the artwork.
Why not wrestle TV media back from the corporate entertainment conglomerates—those lords of chaos magic—that have gradually torn it away from experimental art? It seems like a utopian pursuit, and therefore a powerful tool for queer futurity. For evidence of TV’s ability to shape the future, think of how the Andy Griffith Show (1960–68) shaped the myth of American policing, or better yet, the fact that the President of the United States is a reality TV star. Reality begins with the stories we tell ourselves.