For a recent exhibition called “Diversion,” Asad Raza rerouted the Main River to flow through Kunsthalle Portikus in Frankfurt. Then, he filtered the water to make it drinkable for visitors. The striking intervention by the Buffalo-born, Berlin-based artist was meant to open up questions about distinctions between nature and culture, and to encourage visitors to interact with their everyday environs anew. To discuss the implications of this work and others, Raza met with the philosopher Emanuele Coccia on Zoom. Coccia is an associate professor at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris whose ecological philosophy explores topics like plants and metamorphoses. Below, the two exchange thoughts about transforming the earth.
EMANUELE COCCIA I visited your show, but I admit that I didn’t drink the water. I had something important the next day, and I didn’t want to risk getting sick!
ASAD RAZA You know, I worked with a hydrologist, and I told him I wanted to clean the river water using very simple instruments that you would have in your kitchen. I asked him, what if I pass the water through a very fine coffee filter, then boil it and add some minerals? He said actually, that would be cleaner than most tap water. So I did it, and then I drank it in front of the whole team at Portikus to show them that it was fine. I was nervous too! But it worked out.
For years, I’d been wanting to divert a river through a gallery, and Portikus was the perfect place. The building sits on an island in the middle of the Main River, which is wide and has a powerful current. I created a system of pumps and filters that brought the water from the river up to the mezzanine level. From there, it flowed down through three pipes into a channel across the main gallery space. Visitors could wade in the flowing water; I pumped about 50,000 liters per minute. Then in the lower gallery, we had a station where a team of custodians would take water out of the channel upstairs, bring it downstairs, and put it through the coffee filter routine I described, then offer it to the visitors to drink.
Our society has largely turned rivers into visual spectacles—we eat dinners at waterfront restaurants or we look at them from the window—but many of us don’t actually engage with them. I wanted the show to allow you to both enter and drink the river water, which were normal activities for much of human existence.
COCCIA You’re working at this threshold between art and nature. This shows that nature itself is always the result of manipulation or transformation. Everything has been modified, transformed, manipulated, or chiseled by artists—perhaps nonhuman artists. In “Diversion,” you come into contact with a river transformed by an artist, but that river was established by other biological and geological agents. In a way, the work of art is natural because it’s been produced artificially—transformation is a major part of natural systems as we know them. Similarly, your project Absorption [2019–] is interesting because it became natural through a process of transformation.
RAZA For Absorption, I created artificial soil out of waste that I found in various cities. I’ve used hair from hair salons, as well as beer barley, mushroom compost, and shellfish shells. In the museum, visitors walk on soil that’s spread wall to wall, a foot deep. Visitors can take the soil away and use it to grow things. The first iteration was in Sydney 2019, and the next was at the Gropius Bau in Berlin in 2020. This year, I did it at CCA Glasgow.
You have a new book out called Philosophy of the Home. It reminded me of a show I did in 2015 called “The Home Show,” for which I asked 36 people—artists, friends, family members—to do some kind of intervention in my life. Then I gave tours to individual visitors each day for five weeks, enacting those interventions. Carsten Höllergave me a hallucinogenic toothpaste to brush with at night for vivid dreams. Sophia Al Maria scripted daily rituals: for instance, I had to write down things that I would like to happen on a piece of paper, and then crumple it up and soak it in soy milk. Then I’d stuff that paper in my bathtub alongside a clump of her hair that she sent me, clogging the drain.
COCCIA The book came out last year in Italy and France, and it’s going to be released soon in the US and UK. I signed a contract to write that book before lockdowns began. Then, I was stuck writing a book about home while being locked in a home, which is basically the definition of hell! Anyway, I wrote the book after having moved 30 or 40 times in my life, because I wanted to know, what does home mean? Why is it easy for me to feel at home almost anywhere? When you’re moving, it becomes clear that a home isn’t always so much a container as it is the collection of things and people you take with you. This is interesting, because it says that a home is a selection of elements of the world, that it’s a collection of things that make up a place where you can stay. To inhabit the world means to transform it—we chisel and innovate and metamorphose. When you are moving, usually it’s because you want to live better. If we take seriously the idea that we need to build a home and transform the world to be happy, this means that morality is always material.
RAZA This idea of transforming the world by inhabiting it links your new book to its predecessor, Metamorphoses . Years ago, I read something that speaks to that point, and it really struck me: apparently, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after about a century, something unexpected happened. The topography of the park began to change. The rivers became much more stable in their banks; since the wolves were present, deer and other animals were no longer able to eat as much vegetation—often, they could only nibble briefly before having to dash away again, which allowed many plants to grow deeper roots, and enabling the banks to stabilize. I came to see the wolves as, in a sense, authors of the rivers.
This felt somehow philosophical, though it’s also a fact of the world. The river has played an important role in philosophy throughout history, going back at least to Heraclitus. I tried to bring the actual river through the gallery because I’m fascinated by the idea of the river as an entity that is ceaselessly changing and transforming. Every second, the water is different; the Main brings snow from the Alps to the sea. Only under modernist ideas of monadic subjects and objects did we forget that all the world is undergoing processes of circulation and transformation all the time. It’s so much richer, in my opinion, to be in tune with these systems than it is to try to assume some kind of critical distance, or pretend that subjects and objects are stable entities.
I was pleased that the people who were most affected by “Diversion” were Frankfurt natives. On the very first day, a woman came in with tears in her eyes. She said, “I’ve lived in this city my entire life, but I never touched this water until today.” By redirecting an entity that was already there, I wanted to bring it into a different attentional space. Really, the project is about transforming the attention of the visitor.
COCCIA The Indian American landscape architect Dilip da Cunha wrote a book called The Invention of Rivers . He says that the representation of the river as a line—as water that flows from a certain point and ends in the sea—is already an act of design. The river is not simply water flowing on top of earth; it comprises wetness in different states. There’s flowing water, but there’s also underground water and water that falls from the sky. A river is just the fact of wetness, which is everywhere. The course of the river changes over time, as does the quantity of water. A tree next to a river changes the presence of this wetness. In a sense, a river is a multispecies design because it has been created by various interactions.
RAZA For me, that’s why it was crucial that the visitors be able to walk in the water and touch it and drink it.
COCCIA Where does your artwork end? You usually cannot piss a work of art at the end of the day! The water that you are taking from the river is “artified,” but eventually some of it will probably end up back in the river. So in a way, the Main becomes an Asad Raza artwork.
RAZA I thought about this more with Absorption. Now the artificial soil is in the gardens, allotments, balconies, and flowerpots of various visitors. I’ve also been searching for places to put larger quantities when the shows end. I used to want to give it to botanical gardens, but I found them to be almost impossible to deal with, because they have very rigid ideas about soil and plants. Their idea of species is not mutable or evolving—it’s about conservation. I could never convince them that it’s OK to use something that wasn’t just dug up from the ground. I stopped working with botanical gardens.
In Glasgow, after the show ended and all the visitors had taken what they wanted, there were still 20 or 30 tons of soil. We brought it to a place called Govan Dry Docks, where they are using it to create a new wetland to replace those lost to industrialization. This will create more resilience [against storms and rising water levels]. In a situation like this, you can no longer say that there is a separation of nature and culture.
COCCIA In a way, everything has been modified and chiseled—you could say the entire earth is artificial. The American geologist Robert Hazen explored why the earth has a greater variety of minerals than other planets. The answer is that living beings are involved in many processes of oxidation, and this makes the very material of the earth different from that of other planets. This means that the earth is an artifact. It’s produced by a huge number of species and individuals. In a way, everybody is changing everything, just by the simple act of living.
RAZA I often experience this sensation of unity among various living and nonliving entities. But your field—philosophy—tries, in my opinion, to hold itself apart. Philosophers often examine things as if they were separate from them. So I wonder, given the content of your work, how you feel about this tendency in your field.
COCCIA I think that’s a very stupid attitude from a couple of university professors! If you look at the collection of books that we are obliged to consider philosophical, most of them have little in common. Plato has written literary texts; Marx has written texts on economy; Lucretius wrote poems. Everybody wrote different kinds of texts, and everybody’s claiming that philosophy is something different: different subjects, different styles, different methods. Philosophy was invented in ancient Greece, and the Greek word philosophy was the equivalent of the French amateur, which means in a sense, that when you say you are a philosopher, you are saying you are an amateur, that you are working on a subject but not as an expert but rather, out of passion. Literally, philosophy means love of knowledge or wisdom. Philosophy is just every kind of knowledge that is produced not by precise method, nor by learning from a master, but by passion. It’s knowledge motivated by obsession. This can be dangerous and even make you crazy. Also, everything can become philosophy—chemistry, botany, art.
RAZA I love this point, because in my work, I want to speak to the person who comes into the gallery without necessarily knowing anything about contemporary art. I loved that several visitors were dragged to “Diversion” by their dogs, who could smell the river water. Similarly, in Absorption, kids would often drag their parents toward the field of soil where they’d run and play. What you’re saying is that if you start with, say, chemistry, but then you’re able to say something that’s relevant not just to chemists but to others too, then in a way you’re a philosopher.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington
This article appears in the December 2022 print issue of Art in America, pp. 16-18.