At the end of May, I had the pleasure to meet with the Athens-based artist Zoë Paul in a café near Keramikos. While talking about her recent project La Perma-Perla Kraal Emporium at The Breeder1, she introduced me to the writing of Masanobu Fukuoka and his idea of Do-Nothing Farming, both heavily influential in the notions of permaculture. This idea consists basically of the understanding of complex ecological relationships between soil, plants, and animals throughout the seasons as well as the prudent utilisation of the same. The farmer is not expected to execute constant or lasting interventions such as ploughing or weeding, but rather to carefully sustain the balance in the working ecosystem. Eventually the ecosystem would strengthen and offer stable amounts of crops, in opposition to draining the soil in order to maximise the results. Pauls project was partially inspired by Fukuoka and she described it as an experiment in Do-Nothing Sculpture, in which the same ideas as in Do-Nothing Farming are applied to sculpting.
Fukuoka’s farming (and life) principles are by no means a declaration of passivity, but demand a constant observation of the ecosystem and a masterly application of craftsmanship and knowledge. This is what raised my interest. Only a few weeks ago I visited a screening of Kárhozat at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, which was preceded by a talk between the director Bela Tarr and Jacques Rancière. A member of the audience asked Tarr for advice on how to express his own ideas as a young filmmaker. Tarr answered that no one cared about what the aspiring director thought, that no one cared what Tarr thought, but that you only have to understand life as it is and the filmmaking would come about naturally from that understanding. This second example fascinates me for the same reason as Fukuoka: Not the human action of farming/filmmaking is put in the centre, but nature/life itself. Just the simple understanding that nature/life is complex and productive by itself.
Jan Verwoert’s text Exhaustion and Exuberance2 inspired us in the Curatorial Programme to discuss the pressure to constantly perform professionally in our lives in our programme Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? in April at De Appel. Sami Khatib’s description of ‘Undead Labour’ in his contribution to The Economy Is Spinning3 is even darker than Verwoert’s writing: all labour under capitalism is subject to the expansion from day into the night. The very conclusion of this is the focus of capitalistic production on the undead4 labour. This comes from the ignorance towards the physical and psychological needs of the labourer’s body and the pressure to perform, neither dead, neither alive. Under this logic the body-mind complex5 is not living, but constantly performing operations – be it cognitively and/or physically. The logic of Capitalism facilitates labour to bypass the worker’s agency and to be directly transformed into a commodity6. This effect is very obvious in physical labour, as we can draw from the example of shift work and constant industrial production. In addition to that, we are also asked7 to constantly perform. We become art world zombies, that perform actions almost as rituals and (wilfully) loose our own agency. In order to maintain high performance, self-care methods such as yoga, meditation, sports, and more, are used. Which again only serves to sustain workforce, but without agency. These actions could be compared to the ploughing seen by Fukuoka, as a way to maximise the output of these body-mind complexes. Obviously this leads to results that can be measured and valourised, but maybe aren’t that useful to aesthetic and knowledge.
Zombie Labour also includes cognitive work, e.g. constant writing (in its wider sense). Reading as an act of accumulating knowledge that can be recombined is only a false hope that the grouping of complex terms magically produces new and important knowledge. But in regards of the operations, that we are supposed to perform under a certain logic, it is by no means a problem of the soil8 but of the understanding of its role in an ecosystem. In Do-Nothing Farming, such could lead to a balance between the performed actions, agency, and the overall ecosystem to which each singular person belongs. It could be a counter-strategy to the pressure to perform and its accompanying exhaustion – Do-Nothing Art9.
So, funny enough, this appears to me to be a description of convincing curatorial practice. It opposes the constant intervention into an ecosystem such as art, but focuses on understanding and careful tendering of complex relationships and flows and not just on constant production of texts, exhibitions, or accidental knowledge. Writing, exhibiting, thinking would not be tools that are used for the sake of their use, but careful actions, that are focused on the right moment and place, and that need mastered craftsmanship. Perhaps Do-Nothing Farming is the answer.