Feral Atlas invites us to explore the ecological worlds created when nonhuman entities become entangled with human infrastructure projects. Based on the online digital humanities project, Feral Atlas helps us recognize ‘feral’ ecologies, that is, the effects that emerge out of human projects, but grow beyond our control.
Working with artists and university collections, we gathered objects, specimens, and artworks to tell the multitude of feral stories presented in the Atlas, as well as identified and generated new research about Houston feral stories. We aimed to make physical the multi-dimensional and multi-modal exploratory qualities of Feral Atlas’s digital platform within the solar studio landscape. The stories of feral entities emerge through four historical conjunctions - landscape detonators that span space and time: Invasion, Empire, Capital, and Acceleration. Feral effects, however, can be good or bad; studying feral effects can lead to the new kinds of research needed for the reproduction of life.
Wild sunflowers overgrow unused garden beds next to converted shipping containers. Each container features a “historical conjuncture,” an ongoing historical moment out of which feral entities emerge. “Acceleration,” named after the transformation of earth and human systems since 1945 dubbed The Great Acceleration, contains the stories of radioactive blueberries, herbicide resistant weeds, and marine plastic, among others.
A section of the Berlin Wall stands across the way from the Solar Studios, at the corner of Baker Hall. The Acceleration Room is marked by the post-war period and the Cold War era. Ideas of safety and security were promoted at national levels down to the ‘nuclear family’ at the suburban level, as the threat of nuclear war loomed large. In front of the entrance to the Acceleration Room, a domestic security bar (pictured in header image on this web page), is set in concrete and also held up by the shipping container itself to register the types of walls and secluded enclaves we build and to question what it is they keep out.
Capitalism is that system that puts distant investors in charge of local ecologies; capitalists transform ecologies into profit-making resources without having to experience any of the deleterious effects of that transformation. In the 19th century, New World plantations used enslaved Africans to create the easy profits needed for European industrialization. In such transformations of city and countryside, feral effects sometimes block the aims of capital but often offer it new disasters within which to tighten capitalist control.
The rise of global supply chains in the 1990s radically changed capitalist practices that had previously been centered on industrial factories. Large multinationals pressured foreign subcontractors in the “race to the bottom” to find the cheapest labor and least environmental regulations. Meanwhile, advances in inventory management meant that outsourced labor conditions could be ignored when the product reached retailers. In this room, you’ll find objects organized as if they were within the space of the supply chain, divorced from their stories which can be found on the outside of the shipping container.
"Colonial empires have enacted governance through physical infrastructure—and the coerced labor that builds and maintains it...Colonial projects remade worlds in part through their feral effects. Today, they continue, although often without acknowledgment of their imperial legacies." - text from Feral Atlas
Feifei Zhou’s Empire landscape has been produced as a tapestry, found at the back of the container. Four pedestals hold the center of the room, and prop up various feral-related objects and stories: an Aedes aegypti specimen, antifouling paint, tap water, and sugarcane. The pedestals themselves are composed of concrete, soil, sand, rice, sugar, and oakum - materials that invoke industrial processes and plantation crops that were significant to the development Houston's own economies.
In the nineteenth century, botanical gardens were at the forefront of scientific research. The equivalent of big science labs today - botanical gardens played a critical role in the spread of imperial regimes. Through collecting - and often covertly stealing - plants and seeds from around the globe, botanical gardens were intimately responsible for creating plantation regimes. The Kew Royal Botanical Gardens for example transferred cinchona and rubber from their natural habitats in Latin America to become commercial crops in Asian colonies.
Cindee Travis Klement
Henry G. Sanchez
Additional help from
Special thanks to Dr. Joseph Campana, Weston Twardowski, and the Center for Environmental Studies
at Rice University, Dr. William Godwin and Sam Houston State Natural History Collections, Plant It
Forward Farms, Tom Yeager, and Feifei Zhou whose drawings feature prominently in each room.