Refugia: Introductory text / by Matthew-Robin Nye

This text accompanied the exhibition Refugia in Montreal, May 2016

Refugia is an in-situ performance of the landscape/cityscape of Samuel R. Delany’s city of Bellona in his novel Dhalgren (1974, Vintage Books). The performance is of a domestic landscape interwoven with personal narratives and process-oriented techniques for fugitivity, over three apartments that sit on top of one another.

Dhalgren is a frustrating text, because it steadfastly evades the capture of reasonable explication. As a reader, one enters the novel in the middle of a sentence - “to wound the autumnal city.” - a thought surfacing, and consciousness becoming. The novel’s first pages introduce a character who has little memory of himself as subject and who cannot remember his own name. He emerges from a cave to find his way to Bellona, an American Midwestern city caught in the grip of an unknown/unknowable apocalypse, with buildings that burn and then do not burn; a dark cloud cover that lifts only twice in the novel to display the celestially impossible (two moons in the sky, an immense sun); streets that continually change names; and geographical markers that shift in their distance and direction. The city, with services in a perpetual state of failure and where anarchy-as-process reigns, is alive but nearly hollowed of its inhabitants. Once the “fourth largest city in America,” Bellona’s population is now only one or two thousand, an assemblage of the marginal and disenfranchised, a loose organization of queer bodies, black bodies, the mentally diverse, and societal outcasts. The protagonist, who comes to be named “The Kid,” explores this city and its affects, filling himself and his notebook with his experiences of Bellona and its people through poetry, sexuality, and relational movement.

Dhalgren’s structure offers up a similar circular paradox to Refugia: it resembles a Möbius strip, for which finding the point of entry to a series of relations already worlding, already relating, is an arbitrary gesture. The physical, literary, and narrative constraints of the novel are present in Dhalgren in that it has a beginning and an end, though this is structural artifice. One might as easily begin reading in the middle of the novel. The Kid becomes allegory for the twisted logic of the novel itself. Dhalgren’s words presented intermittently in first person, third person and poetry. The narrative comes from a subject who has become deterritorialized from geography, society, his own mentality. It can be read as a warning against the processes and appetites of capitalist ecologies;[1] as an entry to a queer utopia.

Refugia are the hideaways “from which diverse species assemblages (with or without people) can be reconstituted after major events (like desertification, or clear cutting, or, or, …)” (Haraway 159). Refugia are where processes – ecological, mental and social – go to regenerate. To Donna Haraway, and in Anna Tsing’s recent work, a loss of refugia, the wiping out of these regenerative and diversifying hideaways, might characterize our modern geological epoch. The generative relations that are the basis of diversity have no place to renew themselves in the capitalocene.[2] Worlds become fatigued and fall into lassitude, exhausted. While Tsing and Haraway are thinking about macrobiological processes (i.e. speciation), refugia can be found in many scales: in the biological human, in the appendix, where ‘good bacteria’ are known to regenerate before rejoining the flora of the gut; in daydreaming, where the mind is let off of the entraining leash to stretch its creativity; and in the domestic space ­– private worlds where our sociality is not on display, and where our environments are not dancing to attention.[3] Foucault’s heterotopias are the spaces constructed by societies to contain alterity in subjecthood, time and geography before reentering normative social space. Refugia are the counter-gesture to heterotopia, in that they evade capture, form in resistance, regeneration and renewal, and are the resting place of the undercommons.[4] They relate to the normative capitalocene not to support its functioning, as a heterotopia often does, but to counter it, and become unproductive. Heterotopias are on the reserve; refugia are in the wild. 

The Reserve describes those spaces where one’s movements are predicted, prescribed and commodified. The antiseptic packaging of life and dont-feed-the-animals commerce of the Native reserve or the nature reserve, the suburb, the condo, the coffee chain, the institution. The quotidian is offered for consumption on the reserve: “This is one powerful narrative irony in ambient poetics: the background we think we are perceiving throughout—the background of everyday life—is revealed at the conclusion to have another background—that of the structures of capitalism and governmentality” (Nyong’o 761). In its drive for value, the reserve stamps out ‘novelty,’[5] instead reaching for newness. Creativity is banished in favour of predictability, everyday life revealing itself to be a distilled formula of logistics. Populations are merely numbers.[6] “A capitalist subjectivity is engendered through operators of all types and sizes, and is manufactured to protect existence from any intrusion of events that might disturb or disrupt public opinion” (Guattari 33). The reserve has no room for novelty, unless this novelty is in the form of stronger monocrops, higher yield, further return on the dollar, ecology-as-product, relations as user experience. Complexity is difficult to manage. The reserve is a management system of sorting, selecting out, culling extraneous meaning and accurately representing contents. It favours action over movement, habit over novelty, minor correctives in a preordained course. “What defines action, as opposed to movement, is that its execution is swaddled less immediately in in rhythm, than it is mediated by preestablished meaning” (Manning and Massumi 38). Narrative as truth reigns on the reserve; here, the story is of rescued animals, treaties, and aspirations waiting to be fulfilled.

The Wild is the untamed, the untamable. It is behind a fold, a shadow world that exists on top of the reserve, around it and in its cracks. In the way that a forest floor knows how to communicate with its trees, signaling to arrest acorn masting for a season, in order to cull an over-productive squirrel population, the wild is self-aware. The wild is the leakages, the slippage outside of containers of identity and the identifiable. The wild follows techniques of fugitivity,[7] incompossibility,[8] and has an ethic of “bad debt”[9] and being-with. The root of the wild, and wilderness, is relationality, complexity and flexibility.[10]

In The False we counter the misleading notion of truth. The false presents us with opportunities to encounter the generative, explorative, and wild. Embracing the false opens up the possible. Revealing the incommensurability of ‘truth,’ it pulls back the curtain, exposing the real. Reason becomes derailed, relations become novel again – the power of the false produces the force of the world. With the structure of truth stripped away the body is revealed: “What remains? Bodies, which are forces, nothing but forces – decentered, affecting and being affected” (Deleuze 139). Qualitative forces, transformative, dangerous, wild, live forces. Through the power of the false, the world begins to refresh itself, relations renew. The false is a reintroduction of the anarchic share into the limited milieu of relations on the reserve. The ‘because’ and ‘therefore’ begin to tremble, the production line stalls: “Having lost its sensory motor connections, concrete space ceases to be organized according to tensions and resolutions of tension, according to goals, obstacles, means, or even detours” (Deleuze 128). New landscapes are revealed.

Landscape is a selecting-out from the field in its emergence, a place that is between the forest and the trees. Landscape is a proposition for perspective within the field, the briefest moment in which the subject has not yet been taken up. A landscape is the just before act of landing, the topological in transition to the perspectival. Once perception lands, it takes up a landing site: “When how the world is apportioned out is translated into landing sites, all stays the same, touched but untouched.  A person parses the world at any given instant into particular distributions of landing sites, or better, an organism-person-environment can be parsed in these distributions.” (Arakawa and Gins 6). Where perception lands can be highly political. Landing perception on skin, depending on how you land, could tell you about an identity or a quality, a containment or a process or give rise to a statement or a question. “The body is pushed into a taking-account already in process, and this pulls it toward a self-individualizing realization” (Manning and Massumi 24). Subject is in formation, and landscape the briefest moment of choice-agency. “Landscape should be as invested in the dissolution of nature as ‘ecology,' 'mother earth,’ 'environmentalists' for it is a capture and transfiguration into labour. Landscape becomes labour” (Moore Capitalocene 2). Landscape labours to establish value.

Architecture is a process, a becoming-with environmental forces. It is both a peopling of space and a choreography of people in space. It is a co-compositional bodying of processes, people and the processes which make objects. Architecture is a stepping forward with the environment. It is a bodily relation: it is both a reflection of the environment and a process in composition with it. “The body, a complex organism that is always in the process of reading surroundings, needs to be defined together with that within which it moves; peering at it from the other way around, the surroundings need to be defined with bodies moving within them” (Arakawa and Gins, xx). For Arakawa and Gins, the built environment is a stage in a process between the momentary container of the body (organism that persons) and its surrounds (architectural body). The architectural body, with each act of perception, moves through the organism that persons, the two shifting and re-configuring continually in service of movement. “The organism-person feels and thinks his way through an environment” (Arakawa and Gins 3).   

Utopia is not a place, but a state. Utopia is not a destination but is folded in, that you can carry on your back and step forward with. One step, and then the next. Utopia is fragile: it is vulnerable to many forms of capture, and as an idea, is often packaged and commodified. The field has no centre, but utopia proposes an imaginary one. Like a mirage, actually reaching that centre is a fruitless journey. One step, and then the next: utopia is a harmonization of many processes, ecologies that dive into one another.

Utopia is a process, and its worlding is immanent, and immanently precarious. Utopia is a landscape that you carry with you through an ecology that includes the omnivorous drive of the capitalist processes that it is comprised of, and the social, and the mental. In utopia, the withholding of satisfaction[11] is a holding-forth of the impossible ideal. Reaching the ideal of utopia will only result in the satisfaction of mirage, because utopia is not a place. In this capitaloscene, the incompossibility contained in a present moment, of utopia-not-utopia, capture-not-capture, might be for now the best we can hope for, until the total rewilding of the world.

Wildness is chance, liveness. In wildness desire creates the conditions for the imaginary homeland[12] of utopia in formation. Wildness is the field in its emergence. Wildness creeps, is found only in chance encounters and immediate sensory experience. Wildness envelops itself in the false, the trickster: it is a fugitive intercessor into the logical and regulated. Michael Taussig argues that “wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents” to resist a particular body, instead moving through bodies (Halberstam 144). Wildness, as body, is Manning’s “sensing body in movement, a body that resists predefinitions in terms of subjectivity or identity, a body that is involved in a reciprocal reaching-toward that gathers the world as it worlds” (Manning 6). In wildness, when the body is narrated, told what it can be or not be, it leaps down the rabbit hole of falsehood, hiding in plain sight. “To still becoming into a lingering identity is to try to stop movement” (Manning 11). Halberstam concurs: The function of wildness is to “…challenge the unity of the symbol and to fracture meanings that have coalesced around marked bodies" (144). The project of buttressing containers of identity has been actively coopted. Wildness melts into the forest, evading capture. Wildness is an emerging scholarly field exploring an ecological queer vitality that exists outside of and before the social contract takes hold: it is “a space/name/critical term for what lies beyond current logics of rule.” (Halberstam 138).

Halberstam argues that wildness can be found in the commons of brownness, blackness, indigeneity and queerness. These subject formations have similar stakes in the project of wildness: “A queer inquisition into ‘wildness’ — where we might understand wildness as the space that colonialism constructs, marks, and disavows, as well as a space of vibrancy that limns all attempts to demarcate subject from object, and a space of normativity that holds the deviant and the monstrous decisively at bay” (Halberstam 141). In a postcolonial ecology, the logical processes of normativity create those that are part of the capitaloscene and those that are extraneous to it. “Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.” (Haraway 160). Movements are social, political, biological, feral. A reconstitution of refugia,[13] a taking back of the disavowed, may be the start of mobilizing the project of wildness. In the introduction to The Undercommons, Jack Halberstam says that in the undercommons, as in wildness, “…we cannot be satisfied with the recognition and acknowledgement generated by the very system that denies a) that anything was ever broken and b) that we deserved to be the broken part; so we refuse to ask for recognition and instead we want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls.” (Moten and Harney  6).

 Capitalism is a process that is not above or separate from the processes of the natural world – it is a process that is of the natural world. Further, capitalism is a process that extends through the three ecologies – environmental, social, mental - a rot that creeps. In the mental, it articulates itself through desire for objects, psychosis, stasis, and homogeneity. In the social, it articulates itself as competition, oppression, and colonization. In the ecological, capitalism articulates itself as a border frontier, an appetite for regulation and commodification, conversion of value relations to value productions. In each of these states, the capitalist process colonizes from within rather than as an external front. Capitalism “tends increasingly to decentre its sites of power, moving away from structures producing goods and services towards structures producing signs, syntax and … subjectivity” (Guattari 32).

 (Art) Worlding

The decolonial movement offers some insight for how to reconstitute refugia and bring wildness back into the quotidian. A renegotiation on the same uneven terrain will produce similar results. I find it useful to think with Andrew Goodman’s work on rewilding in nature and the art world. Rewilding is the act of introducing new systems of relations into stagnant ecologies: “Rewilding emphasises the potential of dynamic and complex ecologies with intensive capacities to collectively experiment with flux." This resetting of the relational field is not the introduction of relations themselves, but the introduction of unique entities capable of generating new relations. What can art before the container do? What capacity does the work have to develop, grow its own potential before it enters the exhibition space? The ‘wild,' here, becomes a field outside of the institution that has not yet been cultivated, tamed and professionalized. Art should be wild. At its best, “art provides us with witness to the wildness of queer lives and the queerness of the wild. It does so by offering us utopic visions but also by joining those vision to madness, failure, and the temporality of the belated, darkness and negativity" (Halberstam 142). "That is, if we are concerned with a kind of art that might be thought of as participatory in an expansive sense of the term - an art that we might even choose to call 'ecological' in its encouragement of a complex set of relations forming and reforming immanently between, within and across various components of an event, can this type of 'ecology' be rewilded?” (Goodman) Art’s utopic visions might in fact be key to the reintroduction of novelty to the reserve.

When an artwork is encountered in a field of relations that has already been narrated, the landscape for its production of meaning has been set. This is a dimming of potential before the work has left the gate. What of the unexpected encounter? What of the destabilizing gesture of art? Perhaps, art’s recently increased production in response to refugee and economic crises, political upheaval and social outreach is because the art work, as presented by the institution - even the artist-runs that we may deeply respect - has had its potential quieted, dulled by institutional weight. The institution is itself weighed by the audience’s expectation of some form of capture, the presumed capacity to recognize, parse, and comprehend - if not outright reject. “Can an art event in fact become a literal intensively organizing dynamic system?” (Goodman). Has the system of the institution become so weighty, its codes so recognized and accepted, that they short-circuit the work, blanket it with meaning that circumvents and arrests the artwork from doing it s art-working?  Art idoes not do its work in a vacuum: it is in an ecology, an additional process in the milieu that adds diversity, complexity, richness to the field, and expands its potential.

Refugia is not being presented in a formal exhibition space because it does not accept pre-established relations outside of its chosen ecology. “The room becomes configuring as the body recomposes” (Manning 15). Architecture and body move together as one to create meaning: Architecture as body, with organs, muck, compost, decay and yes, even procreation (or kin-making, as Haraway would propose) in its DNA. But not architecture with white drywall, to be inscribed with temporary meaning and returned to 'neutral' over and over, in the downtime between exhibitions. It is incumbent on the institution to fulfill its moral and natural obligation to function as process itself; to circumvent its predisposition to architecture-as-object towards something more dangerous, live; architecture-as-process. Does the artwork function on the reserve? How does delivering an art, as signifier of ‘Art,' the apex container of knowledge (indicative, of course, of its Creator) function as process rather than object when the boundaries of the reserve are so clearly set? Every effort must be made to provide an allowance for the work to be generative, not only in the mental sphere, but in the social and environmental spheres, and the interactions between these spaces.



Additional subjects enter the ecology of the apartment: not only the companion species, the clothes moth, the rotting apple, the memorabilia, the partner, the neighbour, the place where a book was read, the place where a breakup happened, the middling, the interstitial, the dog - the apartment exhibition offers up affordances for new relations, acts as what Simondon might call a transductive process by which the system of private, domestic living enters the uncertain realm of interrogation. The presence of additional subjectivities in the space - the supervisor, the friend, the curator, the friend-as-curator, the dean - offers nodes where multiple fields of potential can activate further, both troubling the extant relations in the domestic space but offering up a further potential to this space. The immanence of the space becomes felt, begins to vibrate. This potential is activated not by the individuals, with all of their institutional authority and might - it is by the disturbance, the rupture in the field. The “…a-signifying rupture summons forth a creative repetition that forges incorporeal objects, abstract machines and Universes of value that make their presence felt as though they had been always ‘already there’” (Guattari 31). This is a story of decentralized subjectivity, the subjectivity of architecture and landscape forming and in-folding upon itself, worlding together.



Works Cited

Arakawa, and Madeline Gins. Architectural Body. Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 2002.

Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema: 2. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print.

Goodman, Andrew. “Black Magic: Fragility, Flux and the Rewilding of Art”. Immediations book series Editor: Senselab. Open Humanities Press. Forthcoming.

Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. London: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Halberstam, Jack Judith. "Wildness, Loss, Death." Social Text 32.4 121 (2014): 137-148.

Haraway, Donna. "Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin." Environmental Humanities. 6.1 (2015): 159-165. Print.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013.

Manning, Erin. “The Dance of Attention.” Inflexions 6, “Arakawa and Gins”

(January 2013). 337-364. Web.

---. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. Print.

Manning, Erin, and Massumi Brian. Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. 2014. Print.

Moore, Jason. The Capitaloscene, Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis. 2014. Web.

---. The Capitaloscene, Part II: Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital. 2014. Web.

Nyong'o, Tavia. "Back to the Garden: Queer Ecology in Samuel Delany's Heavenly Breakfast." American Literary History. 24.4 (2012): 747-767. Print.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, 1978.


[1] “This means that capital and power – and countless other strategic relations – do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life.” (Moore 11)

[2] Jason Moore defines the Capitaloscene as “the historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital” (Moore 5)  

[3] “Dancing to attention” is the virtual becoming actual, the world in-formation. “Concresence is, literally, growing together. (…) We dance our way to concresence.” (Manning 22)

[4] In their brilliant The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Harney and Moten propose a space that exists with, under and through the commons of the university; the undercommons is a place of resistance that refuses productivity, finance, and the structures of control built in to capitalist society. It is the war room of blackness, brownness, queerness and indigeneity.

[5] Referring to Whitehead’s concept of novelty, Manning states: “Novelty is produced by the body becoming. Novelty is dynamic, active through the plasticity of its rhythms, emergent always in excess of its form” (Manning 21). It is this plasticity, the joyfulness that comes with exceeding a container that the reserve cannot abide.

[6] Logistical populations will be created to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to connect without interruption, or they will be dismantled and disabled as bodies in the same way they are assembled, by what Patricia Clough calls population racism” (Harney and Moten 91)

[7] “Fugitivity is not only escape, “exit” as Paolo Virno might put it, or “exodus,” in the terms offered by Hardt and Negri, fugitivity is being separate from settling. It is a being in motion that has learned that “organizations are obstacles to organising ourselves” (The Invisible Committee in The Coming Insurrection) and that there are spaces and modalities that exist separate from the logical, logistical, the housed and the positioned.” (Halberstam on Fugitivity in The Undercommons 11)

[8] Deleuze sites Liebnizs neologism “incompossibility”, a present moment which is the result of many possible pasts. There have been many possibilities, but only one thing proceeds. The may and the may not are equally real in their own worlds, but do not world together; “The past may be true without necessarily being true” (Deleuze 130).

[9] Moten and Harney propose “debt” as a response to credit: “credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of socialization. Debt comes in the forms of “debt” and “bad debt”. Bad debt is the other side of credit, entrapment. Debt, as social force, is the social contract of owing more than you take. “But debt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way. But debt runs in every direction, scatters, escapes, seeks refuge. The debtor seeks refuge among other debtors, acquires debt from them, offers debt to them. The place of refuge is the place to which you can only owe more and more because there is no creditor, no payment possible. This refuge, this place of bad debt, is what we call the fugitive public.” (Moten and Harney 61)

[10] In ‘Black Magic: Fragility, Flux and the Rewilding of Art,’ Andrew Goodman beautifully outlines how biological dynamism in a healthy wilderness is not about a given element, but how an environment that is complex on system-level has the capability of robust, self-organizing criticality.

[11] For Whitehead, the satisfaction of the event is when a process has actualized in its unfolding, the decision that emerges from potential.

[12] “All sorts of deterritorialized ‘nationalities’ are conceivable, such as music and poetry. What condemns the capitalist value system is that it is characterized by a general equivalence, which flattens out other forms of value, alienating them in its hegemony” (Guattari 43).

[13] “One way to live and die well as mortal critters in the Chthulucene is to join forces to reconstitute refuges, to make possible partial and robust biological-cultural-political-technological recuperation and recomposition, which must include mourning irreversible losses” (Haraway 160).