by T. J. Demos. Duke University Press, September 2020. 272 p. ill. ISBN 9781478009573 (pbk.), $26.95.
Reviewed November 2020
Jack Patterson, MS Library and Information Science/MA History of Art and Design Candidate, Pratt Institute, firstname.lastname@example.org
In the group of essays that comprise Beyond the World’s End: Arts of Living at the Crossing, T.J. Demos builds on his previous contributions to the growing literature of ecological criticism (having himself, arguably, cornered the field’s market within art history) by developing a powerful framework for understanding climate crisis, using the rubric of “ecological intersectionality.” Demos makes good on this theoretical commitment by charting, in expansive historical detail, the indelible and even foundational relationships between climate change and other sociopolitical disasters of modernity, most notably settler colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Through a set of engaging case studies, Demos illustrates how an intersectional understanding of ecology can inform contemporary cultural practices, from activism to art and everywhere in between. Demos’ explorations of politico-economic history are just as elaborate as his analyses of art, making this a particularly rich resource for scholars, students, and professionals in art and art history.
Across only 200 pages of body text, Demos manages to examine a wide array of notable tendencies and figures in contemporary art and architecture, including the video works of Arthur Jafa and John Akomfrah; the activist research projects of architects Eyal Weizman, Teddy Cruz, and Fonna Forman; and the video-game-based installations of Harun Farocki and the Toronto-based group Public Studio. The book’s illustrations consist mainly of photographs and/or stills from the artworks discussed, a clear majority of which are videos and video-based installations – in addition to one sculptural work by the collaborative duo Allora & Calzadilla, and several performance works by another duo, Gustafsson & Haapoja. Other illustrations include examples of the visual culture of the #NoDAPL protests, and a similar poster by the museum activist group Not An Alternative – in addition to mainstream journalistic photography of “climate refugees,” the latter forming the subject of an essay on the challenges of representing the climate crisis in mainstream visual culture.
Much of the strength of Demos’ book is due to his incorporation of influential scholarship from the fields of Black studies, Indigenous studies, and post-humanist materialism (including the work of Fred Moten, Christina Sharpe, and Donna Haraway, political theorist Achille Mbembe, and anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro). Building on these foundations, the particular value of Beyond the World’s End consists in its deft synthesis of a wide range of political, scientific, and artistic inquiry into a coherent framework for understanding the ecological crisis – for Demos, a crisis in culture as much as in planetary life. More specifically, the book describes the challenges faced by contemporary cultural production not just in responding to the crisis, and imagining alternatives, but more simply in imagining its scope.