Category Archives: Tim Morton

Non-human Strangers and Climate Refugees

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Conversations about climate change generally focus on human activity, suffering, and solutions. They often include or imply a critique of anthropocentrism, and yet our attention to the seemingly infinite variety of life forms on the planet remains extraordinarily limited and superficial. Earth is not only our home, and humans are not the only climate refugees.

In his recently published book Humankind, Tim Morton argues that we are severed from other forms of life through agriculture and industrialization. He calls it “The Severing,” a Game of Thrones style trope. One aspect of this split is a very passive relationship to animal and plant life. Unless we are directly involved with animals, in agriculture or wildlife management, for example, we simply don’t appreciate the activity, suffering, and creativity of non-human beings. We also tend to view animals as passive. Though animals must be actively adapting to climate change, we don’t generally observe or appreciate their adaptive behavior.

We have also lost our emotional connection to animals, in various ways. Contemporary animal ethics are typically founded on rational, legalistic arguments. Animals should be afforded consideration or rights because they are like us—intelligent, emotional, and self-conscious. But these arguments miss the most basic and common foundation of human ethical behavior. Love.

If reproduction is the key to species survival, and animals form emotional attachments as humans do, then various forms of love are likely a common characteristic of animal life. But is love only reserved for members of our own species? What does it mean that human children love non-human animals? When and why do children stop being fascinated by animals? It seems that society cultivates an interest in and love of animals in children, and then (for no apparent reason) expects adolescents and adults to stop loving and caring for them.

Why do pet-owners love their pets as if they were people? Is it because they engage with them—in person? Anyone who has had a pet has experienced getting to know the pet. We form personal relationships with them. They become part of the family. If we spent more time engaged with non-human animals could we cultivate or reclaim the capacity to love all animals?

We remember the principle “love they neighbor” but often forget the origin and end of this principle is to love the stranger, the “alien.” Surely non-human animals, however strange or alien, are also our neighbors.

Colleagues in academia and beyond have cautioned me, on more than one occasion, against appearing to prioritize animal welfare over human welfare. Focusing on animal rights in impoverished areas, for example, can be interpreted as a challenge to human dignity. Recognizing animals a climate refugees is out of line (out of order), in the midst of multiple and ongoing human refugee crises. This advice is pragmatic and rhetorically savvy, but is it ethically defensible?

A Guardian article recently posted on Environmental Critique gives a moving account of a refugee, Mansour Shoushtari, who occupies himself caring for animals while detained in Manus prison. (He has been waiting four years to be resettled.) While being treated as a less than human stranger, he has retained his humanity, or should I say his sense of solidarity with other animals. Here is an illustrative quote from the Guardian interview:

I asked him: “Do you love animals more than humans?” He smiled once again. He responded in a humorous way: “You’re asking some really tough questions today! The question you ask is similar to asking the question: do you love your father more than your mother? It’s an extremely tough question to answer. I love human beings and I also love animals. But I have a special affection for birds.”

Why should human suffering tacitly give us permission to abuse animals or to shut down conversations about animal welfare? Who among us, well-fed and literate, deserves consideration if sympathy can only be afforded the most downtrodden humans? Can suffering justify suffering? Returning to the subject of love, is there ever a reason not to extend love and compassion to another living creature?

“The Severing” also results in a dark underworld of violence against non-human animals. Factory farming, habitat destruction, and mass murders that are never reported in the evening news. Is there any relationship between human violence against animals, and a general culture of violence? Again Shoushtari offers insight: “It’s love. In my opinion one does not need to give reasons for love. Love is a personal matter, love is an existential state. But in my view if a human being does not love animals they are incapable of loving human beings.” Human beings do love selectively, of course, as do cultures. Sadly, we are not only taught but also encouraged to love selectively, and even to hate.

Love thy neighbor. Love the stranger. Love all living creatures. These are certainly not pragmatic solutions or policy guidelines. But neither pragmatism nor policy should prevent us from questioning and exploring ethical, dare I say moral, principles.

So I do say, impudently, non-human animals are climate refugees, as are plants, and future generations of every kind. And we have no right to destroy their home.

 

Image Source: https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/19/16334652/endangered-species-list-sonoyta-mud-turtle-iiwi-pearl-darter-protection

 

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Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois

Interstellar enlarges the anthropocentric vision of Contact into a full-blown anthropological myth of human dominion over nature that founds itself upon the primal self-creation of the human. It’s interesting to note the degree to which the film synthesizes vocabularies of popular scientism and deracinated Christian dialectics. The former occurs not only in the immense attention to technical detail evident throughout the film – largely employed to detail memorably elemental planetary settings, as well as to justify its denouement – but also in the plot itself, summarized as the need for humanity to abandon an exhausted Earth and apply itself to the exploration of space. The latter vocabulary provides the motive force of the film, however, contrasting the subtle evil of a deterministic, entropically saturated nature with the overwhelming power of love. Let’s see how this unfolds.

The film begins by contextualizing its setting. Earth is afflicted by a slowly escalating crop blight, the causes of which, curiously, are abstracted from any possible ecological reason. We’re in the domain of a Dying Earth narrative here, not a climate change apocalypse. The difference between the two is that the former isn’t anthropogenic. This matters in Interstellar because it warrants the disdain for earthly caretaking exemplified by engineer/pilot Joseph Cooper’s charismatic go-get-‘em libertarian space cowboy restlessness (contrast Cooper with the protagonist Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast [Peter Weir, 1986], whose strikingly similar personality leads him into tyranny and destruction). It’s not that humans have damaged the planet – thereby implying that humans might be able to learn to adapt or mitigate the damage they have caused – but that planetary conditions ultimately have failed us. “You don’t think nature can be evil?” Cooper later inquires of Brand, surprised.

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Resentfully (“It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are, Donald. Explorers, pioneers, not caretakers”), Coop (widowed) works a farm with his stepfather and two children, Tom and Murphy. After encountering the remnants of NASA, Cooper agrees to pilot an exploratory mission to an artificial wormhole discovered in orbit around Saturn. On the other side of this wormhole, Professor John Brand informs him, there are potentially inhabitable planets, as well as three human scouts sent ahead to investigate. There are two options for mission completion: Plan A (Professor Brand will solve an equation he’s been working on, achieving the theoretical grounds for a gravitational theory of propulsion) or Plan B (Cooper and his crew, including the Professor’s daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand, will endeavor to colonize a viable planet with the cargo of embryos loaded onto their ship, the Endurance).

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Cooper’s departure deeply aggrieves his daughter, Murphy, although Cooper promises to return. In the background of the narrative, there are a series of gravitational anomalies centered on Murphy’s bedroom (e.g., resulting in both the provision of the NASA base coordinates and the scrambling of nearby navigational computers), although no one investigates this thoroughly. The young Murphy wonders if it is a ghost, while Cooper and others dismiss her observations – including the spelling out of the word “STAY” when Cooper informs Murphy of his imminent departure.

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The Endurance enters the wormhole, at which point Dr. Brand apparently makes contact briefly with a mysterious being residing therein. In the new galaxy, Cooper and his crew decide which of the three potential planets to visit first.

Continue reading here.

Note also a reading of Interstellar in Tim Morton’s Humankind, Chapter 5.

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Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People

 Humankind

In his characteristically eccentric and predictably enthralling new book, Humankind, Timothy Morton argues that Marxism has erred in excluding nonhumans from “social space,” but is capable of correcting its course because of its commitment to solidarity.  The exclusion of nonhumans is a bug, rather than a feature of Marxist thought.  Capitalism, based on property ownership and various forms of slavery, conversely, is necessarily exclusive and hierarchical.[i]  Resources, including humans and nonhumans, are subordinated to the transcendent value of capital, and human beings, in effect, develop kinship bonds with capital rather than human and nonhuman beings.  Folding anarchy back into Marxism, Morton argues that solidarity with nonhuman beings simply effaces our ties to consumer capitalism (“Kindness,” 2300 – 2313).  Though Morton criticizes the New Left’s focus on identity politics for reproducing essential difference and thus undermining solidarity, his vision is certainly a boon for the Left (“Things in Common,” 207-261).  I’m not quite sure if Morton’s radical reconfiguration of social space is Marxism as we know it, or as it was conceived, but Humankind might encourage intellectuals to trade their chains for an optimistic New New Left.  Humans and nonhumans in solidarity, willing Trump’s last tweet.

One of Morton’s most radical concepts is the symbiotic real.  I say it’s radical not because symbiosis is new, but because Morton presents non-hierarchical symbiosis as an integral feature of political life. When we become aware of the symbiotic real, solidarity is no longer a value, choice, or decision.  It simply is, and any social, economic, or political theory that externalizes nonhuman beings is recognized as inoperable—an insolvent fantasy (“Things in Common,” 66 – 87).  Another important element of Morton’s project here, and I think it’s his most significant one to date, is interrogating life, categorically. “Life” based on substance ontology, and specious distinctions between its various forms, is antithetical to life (“Life,” 807).  Rather than subordinating life to the “agrologistic” principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, that create mutually exclusive categories of life and non-life, and identify life with autonomous being, Morton rediscovers and celebrates life as quivering, shimmering, spectral (“Life,” 770, 776, 846, 850, 860).  He sings of life forms that overflow their boundaries, downward and upward.  Human beings, composed of myriad nonhuman beings, and haunted by what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects; nonhuman beings composed of what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects, and haunted by human beings. “[T]he intrinsic shimmering of being” (“Life,” 860).

The “correlationism revelation mode” is like a magic trick (“Specters,” 893 – 916).  First we see a subject and an object, and then suddenly the two are collapsed into the transcendental subject. The symbiotic real is supernatural, occult.  Everything has agency, and everything also withdraws (“Specters,” 942, 987).  While we are engaging with a nonhuman, even an inanimate object, it is also engaging with us, and hiding.  And this includes nonhuman aspects of ourselves (“Specters,” 942).  Humankind comprises the nonhuman aspects of the human, including the unconscious.  Both human and nonhuman beings are haunted by spectral others and spectral selves.  This is spectral phenomenology (“Specters,” 942).  Ecological awareness is being with a “ghostly host of nonhumans” (“Specters,” 1089).  “To encounter an ecological entity is to be haunted” (“Specters,” 1113).  Every life form has a spectral double, and “[b]eing alive means being supernatural” (“Specters,” 1323).

Subscendence is the most theoretically important concept of the book, and possibly the most important piece of Humankind’s political argument.  Under the sign of subscendence, Morton illustrates that wholes are smaller and more fragile than the sum of their parts (“Subscendence,” 1767 – 1794).  And this applies to menacing hyperobjects such as neoliberalism.  Though we imagine it as Cthulu, Morton suggests neoliberalism may be ontologically small and easy to subvert.  It pervades social space, but it cannot contain or rule its parts.  Our fear and cynicism is based on an assumption that neoliberalism is a transcendent whole, but solidarity with human and nonhumnan beings can help us dismantle it.  Locally unplugging from fossil fuel energy grids seems trivial, until we rediscover solidarity and begin to replicate such local forms of resistance (“Subscendence,” 1726 – 1828).

Subscendence replaces mastery.  Because parts exceed wholes, and because all objects withdraw, increasing knowledge does not result in mastery.  The more objects and levels of objects we discover, the more objects withdraw. And this includes our knowledge of ourselves.  The more we know about ourselves the more we perceive our withdrawl. “You are a haunted house” (“Subscendence,” 1965).  The dream of access to the thing itself is replaced by a real feeling of being followed or watched.  Intimacy is paranoia, and truth is being haunted (“Subscendence,” 1912; “Kindness,” 2649)

Humankind, like human beings, is “a fuzzy, subscendent whole that includes and implies other lifeforms, as a part of the also subscendent symbiotic real” (“Subscendence,” 2013).  This quote reminds us not to reify the symbiotic real—it’s not a new transcendent whole, God or Gaia. Just as humankind is haunted by the inhuman, so the symbiotic real is haunted by spectral beings in a spectral dimension (“Specters,” 1198; “Kindness,” 2274).

As an explosive whole, speciesism is a violent form of exclusion, predicated on racism and substance ontology (“Species,” 2016, 2243).  Morton argues that agrologistics not only severed humans from nonhuman beings, but created technologies like caste systems, and property ownership, that severed humankind from itself (“Species,” 2206, 2243).  Institutionalized, systemic, racism (subsequently) naturalized difference, and telegraphed social hierarchies into the domain of the nonhuman (“Species,” 2206).  The symbiotic real, conversely, undermines hierarchies.  In a symbiotic relationship both members are dependent on one another.  Neither is on top (“Things in Common,” 70).  If human beings are dependent on each other and on nonhuman beings in non-hierarchical ways, what maintains social hierarchies?  The severing of kinship with human and nonhuman beings.

“The Severing” is a “traumatic fissure” between the “human-correlated world” and the “ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere” (“Things in Common,” 272). Solidarity is the “default affective environment,” but anthropocentrism suppresses solidarity between humans and nonhumans, and erects boundaries between humans (“Things in Common,” 296 – 299). The effects of this intergenerational trauma are widespread, resulting in a desert landscape “from which meaning and connection have evaporated” (“Things in Common,” 312, 355).  This results in alienation, not from some transcendent presence but from “an inconsistent spectral essence we are calling humankind,” as well as the spectrality of nonhuman beings (“Species,” 2197-2201).  “What capitalism distorts is not an underlying substantial Nature or Humanity, but rather the ‘paranormal’ energies of production” (“Species” 2204).

Ultimately, Morton argues that solidarity is kindness, and kindness is an unconscious aspect of ourselves, which we share with nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2283- 2306). Acknowledgement, awareness, and fascination are all aesthetic and ethical/political acts of solidarity (“Kindness,” 2296 – 2368).  And since our origins lie in the symbiotic real, these “styles” of being also belong to nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2294, 2453, 2835).  Indeed, recent animal behavior studies suggest that solidarity is inherited from nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2860).  Morton ends by queering the active and passive categories, and “veering” love toward the environment (“Kindness,” 2963, 3119).  Solidarity requires nonhumans because we are inseparable from the symbiotic real (“Kindness,” 3123 – 3127).  We are them.  “Solidarity just is solidarity with nonhumans.”

[i] “Things in Common,” 416, 430. All in-text references are to chapter titles and locations.

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Filed under Affect and Ecology, Animals, Capitalism, Objects, OOO, Tim Morton

Dark Ecology. What’s a Human—to Do?

by Randall Honold
Co-director, Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul University

 

Thoughts prompted by Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence

Remember the end? I’m recalling all the “end of . . . ” books that started pouring out around twenty years ago. We read about the end of history, nature, faith, poverty, men, globalization, power, Europe, imagination – even absence. Maybe because we love a good ending when we see one we start seeing them everywhere. Or maybe we love resolution no matter what comes next. There’s a kind of end-logic we get trapped by: either we’re pouring accelerant on the flames of decline or we’re cynically indifferent to the suffering in front of us: “Everything has to end sometime – c’est la vie!” Of course, nothing that has been ending has actually ended. We don’t know how to see the end to the end, it appears. The past persists.

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Today we’re grappling with the meaning of the end of the Holocene, from here and now at the onset of the Anthropocene. Coming to realize that we humans changing the earth may be a defining event for both the earth and humans. Who are we humans and what is the earth after the end (better: during the ending) of the Holocene? What might our entwined future(s) look like?

We need help thinking about who and what we all are at beginning of the first geological era to which we’ve given our name. Even if at first that help doesn’t look like a guiding hand but a dead sparrow on our doorstep. Even if in the welcoming of help we let go of what we thought we were and invite across the threshold what we didn’t want to admit was already here for some time.

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Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence is the kind of object we need to help us think what we are and what to do about it. Calling the book an “object” sounds like I’m reducing it to a single instrument but no – it’s a rich, dense, diverse collective of reflections that unfurls like a growing crystal, its fractal structure embodying one of Morton’s main ideas, that reality is a loop of objects resisting organization by a larger ideal. And like all objects, the book gets weirder the more I interact with it. Which brings me to what its title describes, “dark ecology.”

What happens to us if we practice dark ecology? That is, what happens to the meaning of us and what kinds of actions do we end up taking? Since Rimbaud, at least, we’ve known that “I is another.” That knowledge in itself isn’t enough to twist free of what Morton calls agrilogistics, the roughly twelve-thousand year tradition of rearranging the earth in order to stabilize ourselves. Furthermore epistemology itself probably isn’t tweakable any further. The knowledge we have and the ways of knowing we practice are plenty satisfactory for making it through the ecological crisis. Imperator Furiosa and Max Rockatansky made it across the wasteland and back on far less! Our fate is tied to a very large number of equally non-selvish beings that we can’t fully know but we always already coexist with aesthetically. Practicing dark ecology isn’t something esoteric or obscure; it’s kind of a continual reorientation toward the equally mysterious beings we’re already coexisting with.

Dark ecology entails practicing intimacy in as many ways as possible. It amounts to compassion, really, consonant with Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Morton.  Every manifestation of compassion arises from an orientation that has been open to suffering. Robert Thurman says suffering alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of what we really are. For at least a couple of thousand years we’ve tried applying a variety of Anthropocentric therapies to this lack of awareness, intended to restore us to the larger whole we’ve fallen from and redeem our suffering. But that’s not what we need at the onset of the Anthropocene. We’re in a time that’s pretty clearly defined by our futility at getting on top or to the bottom of wicked problems of our own making (cue global warming, species extinction, fresh water depletion, and even the end of sand!). What if there isn’t a big Nature to get back to, an Environment to clean up, an Earth to become one with? Would it be so bad for these big old Beings to come to an end? What if we follow Morton and experiment with Anthropocenic anti-therapies which yield results consistent with increasing intimate coexistence with ourselves and other objects?

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SPF 2017 (Subscendence Perpetration Formation).  Directions: Apply liberally and often.

Tim Morton
Image Sources:

https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/what-is-the-lay-of-the-land-part-ii/

https://cup.columbia.edu/book/dark-ecology/9780231177528

http://archinect.com/features/article/149934079/timothy-morton-on-haunted-architecture-dark-ecology-and-other-objects

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A Conversation Between Timothy Morton and Jeff VanderMeer

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THE SEEDS OF THIS CONVERSATION were planted when I saw an online announcement for Timothy Morton’s new book, Dark Ecology. Immediately I felt the cover design resonated with the amazing covers of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. When I mentioned this to Tim at an academic conference, he said it was a sort of lovely and weird coincidence because he and Jeff had recently started communicating with each other — appreciating each other’s work, ideas, and aesthetics. 

Soon after, Gerry Canavan and I started collaborating on “Global Weirding,” a special issue of the academic journal Paradoxa, and we agreed that Jeff and Tim would make an engaging and provocative pair to feature in conversation with each other. In many ways, they both have a magical ability to produce extremely edgy and sophisticated work capable of reaching wide audiences well beyond academic and/or genre fiction coteries. Fortunately, they agreed to meet via Skype one morning in the summer of 2016. I opened the conversation by asking them to start with a statement on what they found engaging and illuminating in the other’s work and how they envision their work intersecting, and then I quietly recorded and observed as their friendly, loopy conversation veered around through Beatrix Potter, Surrealism, childhood experiences with tidal pools, fur-shedding cats, and uncanny orange juice.

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TIM MORTON: There’s a very, very strong overall feeling about the work that you do, Jeff. There’s a very dreamlike quality to it, and I like this quality very much. If I was going to use a word to describe it, I’d probably use Freud’s word “displacement.” There’s something around the corner all the time. You can’t quite put your finger on it, and maybe you’ll never be able to put your finger on it. It’s sort of disturbing, tantalizing, dreamlike, and there’s this overall feeling of losing a sense of obvious reference point, whereby the way that you’re dreaming and what you’re dreaming about are sort of weirdly melded together so you can’t tell which is which a little bit.

JEFF VANDERMEER: The interesting thing is I’m very much a writer who is both organic and mechanical. I believe in getting down a draft, which is very influenced by the subconscious, and then peering through it. After I wrote Annihilation, I started seeing reviews that mentioned your work in connection with it; that’s why I picked up Hyperobjects, and the thing that was fascinating to me is that it appealed to both the organic and the mechanical sides. The mechanical side made me understand what I had written better because the very term “hyperobject” kind of encapsulated what was going on organically in Annihilation.

Then, partly because I’m not a philosopher, but also because I’m interested in this subject, the book sent me on another delightful “down the rabbit hole” moment. In part because there were sections where I had to bulwark basic knowledge before I could go forward. And then there are other things that I know are received by my conscious mind, but my subconscious is working on breaking them down and reinventing them for future fiction. I always go through this process in which I have to trust my subconscious first, and I then have to understand what it was that I did, and then my fiction is informed by all of that; your book really helped me with that, which is really important in this context where I’m fairly sure there isn’t going to be a novel I write going forward that doesn’t deal with ecological themes in some way.

Continue reading here.

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Timothy Morton: University of Chicago Lecture

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Oct 23, 2016, 2PM

Kent Hall, Room 107
1020 E 58th St
[view map]

In Urth, Ben Rivers partially draws on the work of philosopher Timothy Morton, who offers vivid new perspectives 
on ecological thinking, our uncanny interconnectedness with the nonhuman, and the future to come.

In his latest book, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (2016), Morton argues that ecological awareness in the present Anthropocene era takes the form of a strange loop or Möbius strip, twisted to have only one side. Deckard travels this oedipal path in Blade Runner (1982) when he learns that he might be the enemy he has been ordered to pursue. Ecological awareness takes this shape because ecological phenomena have a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are.

The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic. His work is a skilled fusion of humanities and scientific scholarship, incorporating the theories and findings of philosophy, anthropology, literature, ecology, biology, and physics. Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.

This event is presented in partnership with the Arts, Science & Culture Initiative, the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and the Open Practice Committee of the Department of Visual Arts, all at the University of Chicago, and the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. His books include Ecology Without Nature (2007); The Ecological Thought (2010); Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013); and Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (2013); and he has published more than 150 essays on ecology, philosophy, art, literature, music, architecture, and food. He has collaborated with several artists, including Björk, Olafur Eliasson, and Haim Steinbach, and blogs regularly at ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com.

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Related Exhibition

Ben Rivers
Urth

Sep 10–Nov 06, 2016

Source: http://www.renaissancesociety.org/events/1156/timothy-morton/

 

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“one of the great, great documenters of our eco age”

Posted by Tim Morton on Ecology Without Nature.

Judy Natal Screening

“Judy is one of the great, great documenters of our eco age. She’s screening some amazing things, which blew my mind when I saw them last year, soon in Chicago.”

This is a rare opportunity to see Natal’s new work—not to be missed!

See event details below and at chicagoclimate.org 

Judy Natal: Another Storm is Coming

  • Tuesday, October 11, 2016
  • 6:30pm – 8:30pm
  • DePaul University, Lincoln Park Campus, McGowan South, 1110 W. Belden Ave., Chicago, IL  60614
  • Room 108
    • Featuring renowned Chicago artist and educator Judy Natal
    • Keynote address and video screening
    • Videos: Breathed on the Waters and Storm Redux

Please re-post our Facebook event page asap please (Christine Skolnik).

It’s not too late!

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