Dripstone is the research blog for queer visual artist, researcher, writer and curator Venus Jasper.

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When language becomes poetry

The temperature on the north pole has never been as high as it was last summer. Each year bushfires rage with higher intensity, hurricane season gains in strength and the fields of the Netherlands become ever more dry. Scientists warn that the collapse of our society is imminent, but can we even speak of society, if we aren't able to address this climate breakdown collectively, and even allow it to deteriorate further?

Mister Motley developed the project
LAND in collaboration with the ArtEZ Studium Generale last summer. Seeing how we are becoming more and more aware that the capitalist system and those in power have no intention of taking responsibility for the consequences of the climate crisis, the need to look beyond dominant western perspectives is needed. We have to reassess the relationship between land, nature and ownership.

Jasper Griepink is an artist that has developed work about the relationship between nature, spiritualism and ownership for more than 10 years. They have a deep interest in indigenous knowledge, but how do they approach this knowledge as a white, western artist? And, can you even make a difference in the climate crisis by making art? I spoke with Jasper on Skype on a very warm day in November.

Lieneke Hulshof in conversation with Jasper Griepink, for Mister Motley Magazine, originally published in Dutch, in December 2020.

MM: In the project LAND we continuously speak of the relationship between ownership of land and the breaking down of our climate. Do you also link these two concepts together in your work and thinking, or do you see them as two separate entities?

JG: “The climate crisis is deeply related to our ideas about ownership. In general, the deterioration of the natural world and the elimination of traditional communities that coexist with nature, are both the effect of Western ideology. Simply put, Western society sees 'its' surroundings as a collection of objects and commodities, not as cohabitants. Ownership is a prime example of this.

I’d like to refer to the book Lo-TEK by Julia Watson. She is a landscape architect from Australia who studied at Harvard. Her book was published ealier this year and is about TEK-design methods. TEK is short for Traditional Ecological Knowlege. This book is essentially a collection of traditional agricultural-, water management- and nature preservation methods that have been around for thousands of years and promote balance between food sources, water and living space for animals. The book can helps us to radically rethink our relationship with natural ‘resources’ and energies. In the different chapters, the awareness that nature is a living entity with its own right to existence comes to the fore in between ultra pragmatic explanations of technique.

In general, we can say that the Western idea of success is based on an ideology of exploitation, gain and production, not one of balance or coexistence. In Lo-TEK , Watson shares one example of the plateaus of the Andes, where people who work on the land had been collaborating with fish for thousands of years. They scoop out the sediment from the bottom of the ditches and spread it over the field to fertilise soil. This worked perfectly until the colonisation process began, and all of a sudden the plateaus of the Andres needed to be identical to those of mainland Europe. When you destroy these micro land-management methods, it naturally also affects a climatological level.”

MM: In the relationship between climate, land and power, language plays an important role. How we describe and define things, directly affects how we perceive them. I know you also have ideas on this subject, can you tell us a little more about this?

JG: "The Dutch and English languages are languages that speak of ownership, trade, agreements and definitions. These are not languages that animate or activate the world with the right to exist. In our languages, we describe nature as being neutral and impersonal even. This directly promotes the idea of the superiority of the human race over the natural surroundings. Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer (1953, New York), writes about indigenous languages and how they differ from Western language in her breathtaking book Braiding Sweetgrass. She explains that Western society doesn’t address (for example) a tree as “he” or “she” but instead speaks of them with neutral pronouns best suited for man-made and inanimate objects. Through the use of language, we determine whether or not something lives and whether it is seen as an equal. This is done automatically, nearly invisibly so, for those that are higher up the pyramid of power and representation. Naturally, we all ‘know’ a tree is alive, but we do not speak of a tree on the same terms as our fellow kin in the language we are all taught in school.

Kimmerer, is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, through her grandfather, a North- American indigenous community in current-day Oklahoma. In her grandfather’s language, there are more options than simply ‘she’ and ‘he’, this means that the pronouns for 'natural things' are not impersonal. The difference between living and ‘non-living’ things is also very different from Western languages. In fact, almost everything is spoken to with the living verbs that we reserve for our fellow man alone. The ‘Grammar of Animacy’ as Kimmener refers to it, makes sure that in each sentence fire, trees, rivers, wind, birds but also for instance moss are acknowledged as animate, just as our brothers and sisters. This way of seeing is completely logical to me for as long as I remember and recently I am beginning to see the value in how I agree with this.

I see language as the key and keeper of how we view life. Yet, we often forget that the language we use is limited and very much limiting also.

As I said before, Dutch and English are languages of possession and ownership. A thing only exists if it has a name, without a name it does not ‘exist’. So, if we in Dutch say “look, a tree!”, then we imagine ourselves the tree trunk, with branches and leaves. But we do not see her pheromones or that which lies beneath her. Let alone the stories woven in and around her existence. In our language, a tree is sort-of-like an object, while in reality, she is a mytho-ecosystem that collaborates with her surroundings, bestowing us with not only food, medicines and fiber, but also a different kind of relationship. One which spells reverence, gratitude, story and ceremony. We, like the tree, belongs to such relationship ecosystems. As do all kin. This is very evident in the cosmological theories of many indigenous communities the world over, but in Dutch, ‘a tree’ is just a tree."

image: Jasper Griepink, Enter the Grove, IMPAKT Utrecht, 2020. photo by: Pieter Kers

MM: In 2016, you went to Guatemala to study Permaculture and Natural Building Methods. Can you explain why your interest in permaculture is also so important to you as an artist?

JG: “I studied permaculture with the IMAP on the Atitlan lake in Guatemala, it’s a non-profit permaculture institute that was created by a group of locals who are worried about the serious environmental, social and cultural problems afflicting the nation. Simply put, permaculture is a landscape- and agricultural method that is comprised of 12 principles and 3 ethical guidelines. Though the principles of permaculture are not only applicable to land, agriculture and ecological systems, but also to social and organizing structures. This inspired me greatly as an artist.

For example, the principle that an 'outside' of the system should not exist; everything and everyone counts and is included in holistic sense. In proper permaculture, everything is reinvested back into the system. Or the wisdom of margins, permaculture principle #11, the knowledge that everything that grows on the crossroads and edges of the system is of the utmost value to the whole. Plants that can survive on the borders do the important work of rejuvenating the bottom of the soil. I find that this is also applicable to social structures: people with intersectional and marginalized perspectives are of unfathomable value.

In Guatemala, I could see what happens when people are forbidden to work the land in traditional ways. When an oasis of flora is chopped down in order to produce coffee year round, the earth will dry up and become too acidic. It’s a matter of time before the soil becomes totally infertile. Naturally, this directly affects the people that live in these areas. Having only coffee to sell, while everyone is doing the same, doesn't really give anyone a proper living. It's a prison labor system, dressed as agriculture.

This situation results from the neo-colonial oppression by mega-corporations such as Coca Cola and BAYER-Monsanto that, amongst others, illegalized the cultivation of local plants. Passing on heirloom seeds is often punished. Here, it became clear that wanting a healthy and natural earth is an innately political activist act. In Guatemala, there are many permaculture projects instigated by people with a Western background, but there are also projects organized by people with a local background. As a student, I was shown how the resilience of families is amplified by applying permaculture methods. It was striking for me to see; I was literally in the midst of a mountain range full of red and dusty soil where coffee was being cultivated, but in these small havens, where people had miraculously managed to rid themselves of Monsanto, there was a green paradise - as it used to be.

“It became clear to me, that accomplishing healthy and natural earth, is an innately political activist act.”

There are two use issue in permaculture though, very white issues. Firstly, on paper, it is said that permaculture is ‘invented’ by two white men from Australia, in the ’60s. While it is actually a collection of ideas and methods that have been around way longer, rather than an 'invention'. Some see permaculture as the appropriation of indigenous wisdom; the theft of knowledge and cultural property. Secondly, permaculture sometimes operates as a neo-colonial system in which Western people turn parts of the former 'third world' into their own eco-paradise. I think its important to always explain that permaculture ideas originate from indigenous local knowledge, and we should definitely assess how a project is a neo-colonialist on a per-project basis. For instance, by looking at who gains from the project. Here is an interesting post about eco-colonizers that I find helpful.

On the other hand - just as with the book Lo-TEK by Julia Watson - I do find that the 'translation' of indigenous knowledge into a Western form and language gives way for reestablishing a relationship with nature and sustainable systems. Because of this, I struggle to write off ideas and initiatives that support a healthy planet and local connectivity in the basis as being a neo-colonialist issue, whenever said projects have been initiated by Western people. Obviously, if something is solely about creating a white utopia, then obviously, it has gone in the wrong direction. Yet the effort to listen to the land again, and learn from her, is important. In my own journey, I've been fortunate to have encountered the permaculture movement, as it brought me to ways of understanding and observing nature. When I speak about permaculture I am actually trying to say: "Hey! There is a lot of ways to be with the land that isn't straight lines of mono-crop. There ways that don't ruin the earth! Please know this.”

MM: How does your knowledge of permaculture turn up in your artistic practice?

JG: “In my practice, I direct my gaze to the earth in order to see myself as nature and create things (mostly experiences) that can be of meaning to people. As a child, I always felt that there must have been another time before this high powered economic Western way of life. I noticed that how I personally think and feel about nature is parallel to how many indigenous ways of seeing behold the world. There seems to be a language that corresponds between different groups of people worldwide when it comes to eco-centric reality concepts. It's about seeing how mankind is not the centre and king, but how we are related to and with nature. It’s important to note though that not all indigenous groups are the same or think the same.

The word indigenous obviously stems from a colonial frameset. Today, many groups do reclaim the name indigenous in order to gain visibility and legitimacy (a name) in our essentially still colonial systems. Just like in any healthy ecology, indigenous communities all together form thousands of specific and different local traditions, stories, methods, myths and origin stories which more-ver fall in the same direction in certain key aspects. Chihiro Geuzenbroek said it very beautifully during the Whole Earth Revision panel during this year's IMPAKT Festival. She said that what indigenous people have in common is that they don't believe the land belongs to them, but that they belong to the land. I find this very striking.”

image: Jasper Griepink, DEEPSOILx STONEORGY, MU Eindhoven, 2020. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

“The one thing about indigenous people is that, they don’t think the land is theirs, but that they belong to the land. When we speak about indigeneity, we speak about listening to the land, listening to nature. The wisdom and knowledge that comes from these cultures is based on listening to the country, to the place, to the land. By burning libraries, forbidding to speak their language and dance even, these wisdoms are erased.”
- Chihiro Geuzenbroek (see video here)

MM: You have spoken about a language within which the human is not the centre point. Do you mean spoken language? Or can this language be found in gestures also?

“Definitely this doesn’t have to be written or spoken language. Looking at the preface of the book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmener gives her answer to the question of why the inhabitants of Turtle Island braid the wiingaashk grass. They braid the grass because it is handy for them to bundle the grass used in ceremonies, but they also braid the wiingaashk because it’s the hair of mother earth. By braiding her hair they remember “Yes, we are braiding the hair of our mother, because the earth is our mother”. I see this as language as well.

So, the jump in perspective that I often point to can be interpreted in many ways. The realisation that nature lives and is not an object, to the realisation that you can ask a tree or a aquifer for its opinion, in a political vote for instance. This is almost unthinkable for many Western people. These days, sci-fi is a great way to discuss the realities and stories that current-day politics and society are not entirely ready for. Visionary sci-fi is currently being used by many groups of people to express their views, feelings and to re-vive certain ontologies and cultures that seem to have little room in the mainstream mindset. It is my belief that stories we create eventually do become reality in one way of another, so we need to be aware of the stories we tell and share, but definitely do our best to create what is painfully missing from our world today.

In her book The Fifth Sacred Thing, the American permaculture-feminist Starhawk writes about a post-apocalypse in the near future in California. In her utopia, trees, fish, clouds, the rain and the sea all get a vote in political decision making. She describes it as a political embodiment theatre where people say, "We need more fish," to which a group representing fish or the ocean says, "Hey, this is the fish speaking, and you're taking from us. Please only take from us in March, and only upstream," I find that very interesting, to think about giving nature a place in our political decisions. To give her voice. To listen to her. I believe that this exists a lot more in indigenous communities, where the non-human is consulted”

MM: In language that becomes a practice (or in your case a political philosophy) there seems to be a link with art. Are there examples in your artistic practice where your research become tangible in your work?

JG: "In my work, I link many theories and experiences together. I’m someone that loves to think, analyze, read and find intersections. I like to add to the mycelium of our world, so to speak. The most beautiful moments in my life and art, however, are the moments that surpass language.

In 2014-15, I had a project that involved a sweat-house at Roodkapje and Kunsthuis SYB; a sort of sauna where people could sweat and bathe. When people arrived to the venue and saw this sweat-house with naked people standing around, they would say “Wow this is incredible, what is this place? Is this a community, how did you find these people to join?” Before long though, the same people pondering this would go into the sweat-house themselves, and after a few minutes a t-shirt would come off, half an hour in, they would be entirely naked. After a while, they'd go outside for some fresh air, and there they would be seen by new visitors that said “Wow, who are these people? How did they get here?” And all of a sudden they had become part of something that had seemed outside of them. I often give the creation of the work back to the viewer or visitor in this manner.

Another more recent example is the story D E E P S O I L that I performed at MU, Eindhoven and IMPAKT festival in Utrecht in 2020. The eco-mystical story D E E P S O I L is inspired by the slash-and-burn agriculture of the Kayapó in Brazil, as described in the book Lo-TEK. The story speaks of an unground layer of earth, minerals and nutrients that is believed to have consciousness. The story was never finished in written form and is given life together with an audience. People sing and dance along to songs from the mini music album named S T O N E O R G Y, recorded in 2019 with the musician Giek_1. There is a moment in the story when the narrator, me, wakes up and realizes that they find it a bad story. So I stop the performance. The story has centered on a man who has to save the world from an industrial family. “Another story where a man comes to save the world?” I say, "How can that be? Can it be done differently?” Then the entire narration changes into a kind of poetic final piece in which another way more sexy world is created.

image: Jasper Griepink, DEEPSOILx STONEORGY, MU Eindhoven, 2020. Photo: Hanneke Wetzer

"It’s a place, before dirt was dirty
When we still spoke to the landscape”
- lyrics from the song DIRTY.

JG: "Something that I have noticed is that when language becomes poetry, we come closer to reality. If I were to say “we need to connect with nature.” Then would people think “A lovely thing to say, but I just don’t feel it, I go to the woods often enough.” But through a poetic piece of text all of a sudden something can open up inside of people and they feel “Ah yes, I am actually in love with the sea also. I love the sea, and all my life I have had a deep relationship with her.”

MM: You talk a lot about indigenous knowledge. In the current conversation in the West, we always speak as if this knowledge lies outside of Western man, that it is 'knowledge of others' that we find 'interesting'. Should Western people look at themselves and at the literal Dutch soil they walk on also? Especially as a white person, referring to knowledge that is not part of your own cultural background, do you need to be mindful of appropriation?

JG: “I am very involved with that question. I often ask myself if my interest and passion for indigenous knowledge and traditional spiritual cosmologies stems in part from my colonial background? Yes, it is definitely part of my colonial background to get 'inspired' by the world. Some people also reject any romantic notion on nature, and they say: “Nature has no intention”. But this is also a colonial way of thinking, because there are enough people on this planet that would say nature does have an intention, or at least that it has consciousness, or that it is a life form which counts just as much as us, and has its own desires and emotions. So where lies the decolonisation process precisely? Clearly also in the decolonisation of our language and ways of thinking that have led us to believe it impossible that nature has a soul and intentions?"

There is a clash in this. Can I be passionate and inspired by indigenous knowledge and pass it on, or am I a romantic and an appropriator passing on what isn't mine to speak about?

I can say that most of my work before 2016 was in one way shape or form appropriation. I was literally fed as if by some primordial life force via stories from faraway places, that I also travelled to regularly. Of course, I didn’t discover anything; I simply went to a place that already existed. In our western mindset we think we discover something when we find something we didn't know yet, one example of how our language creates bias euro-centric narratives. After my experiences in Guatemala, I became a lot more conscious of the choices that I make, and often choose to leave things up to others with more knowledge and agency to address topics. And yet, my personal inspiration is still drawn to non-western or at least pre-western/pre-capitalist/pre-colonial knowledge.

Some of this knowledge lives amongst indigenous groups and is delivered to the west via anthropologists, by representatives of the groups themselves and also by people such and Kimmerer, who bridges the gap between indigenous and western frameworks. It is the same point of contention that we see with permaculture; is it appropriation, because Western people suddenly have ideas about how we should manage agriculture, is it a revival and conduit of indigenous sustainable technologies that desperately need to be passed on as to turn the climate crisis around?

In this sense, I seek a form that despite by own colonial thinking and acting can still form conduits for important outlooks of life, nature and kinship with the world. I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, when I realize that topics aren't mine to own. In response to your question, I can say that i've been very interested since young age, into unraveling the roots of who Europeans (or the Dutch) were before their colonialism and imperialism. I believe that we also have indigenous roots and belonging to the land, when we traverse back far enough. The definition of 'indigeneity' is not solidly declared in some white book somewhere. I believe it points to a belonging to the land: that we come from the land. To be able to listen to the land. And this is what I see in things we call 'pagan' or 'heathen' in our own past. Obviously, this rhetoric should never ever imply that because we have indigenous roots we aren't also colonial and white!”

MM: What are you referring to when you say that we all have indigenous roots? How did these disappear?

JG: “Before mass oppression of 'others' by our entreprises at sea, there were massive imperialistic processes taking place in Europe. Now it’s become a relatively homogeneous patch of land and nations, but once there were local tribes, languages, traditions and beliefs. There was very much alive local knowledge, agricultural knowledge, plant medicine and regional mytho-linguistic wholeness akin to the ones I can trace in the work of Kimmerer. Large groups of people on these soils were persecuted and burnt as witches or heretics over the course of 600 years. That is a significant uprooting. Recently, during her reading at Wxtchcraft (De Studium Generale van KABK) Silvia Frederici spoke about how the witch hunt was particularly directed at the expropriation of autonomous land ownership so that it could be used for proto-nationalist (church-state) commercial activities. Women were not allowed to be assertive or autonomous. The land and the woman were increasingly banned from history. Many queer people were killed. The Inquisition decided in 1449 that people also had to be persecuted because of 'race'. In short: everything we have done on the other side of oceans, our colonial lust for murder, seems to have been woven into the foundation of our homogenous national histories over here.”

image: Jasper Griepink, Trans Neolithic Future, series of drawings 2019-2020

MM: I'm curious how this 'pre-Christian and pre-imperialist knowledge' takes shape in your practice? What do you do with this knowledge as an artist?

JG: “In order to return the lost land connoisseurs and natural wisdoms, I've been working around the notion of the Druids in my work since 2016. Druids were the poets, philosophers, astronomers and surgeons of the European forest. People formerly gathered in the woods to share knowledge in an oral way. This often happened through poems with certain stanzas containing information passed down from generation to generation. I see the Druid often a a style motif that I encountered it in my childhood, in computer games, in Asterix and Obelix comics, and even in history books where the character was sometimes described as an indistinct "wizard" in the forest doing some gruesome sacrifice work. It has always fascinated me to give more shape to this 'native' character. However, there are problems with the lore of the Druids, because we don't have that many sources left. Much of what remains is to be discovered through Welsh, Irish and Celtic lore. There was a belief in reincarnation. The colour black was a colour of fertility. Winter and death were not as scary as they became in Christian times. Life and death were moreover an interplay. Goddesses were often female and connected to important places in nature.

"Opinions are still split when it comes to the indigenous roots of white Europeans. There are people that remember that we've not always been colonizers, but those are also often the people that do not want to see the colonial at all! Which is very problematic. Then there are people that clearly say; yes, I am a white coloniser- but then there is often no notion or connection to their older roots. So I ask myself, to what extend do I include my own history as ancestral source? Can both sides of recognition find a way towards each other, so there can be a perspective shift?"

MM: What is the core of this perspective shift for you?

JG: “For me, the biggest difference between western and pre-western knowledge is in the way we do or don't see nature as a cohabitant, but as something less-than-human. That is one of the biggest differences. Because of this uprooting, a lot of space was created for a lot of shit. This doesn’t mean that pre-western people didn’t have any aggression or violence of problems - I'm not trying to idealise here- yet I do believe it to be remarkably helpful if we can keep rekindling the idea that nature is not a sort of theatre backdrop that will move a little to the left or write to suit our human story. There is an inherent feedback loop: the more acidic the land becomes, the acidic we become.

I hope that when we in the west become interested in our historical connection with nature and the land, through agricultural practices, regional practices and eco-spiritual beliefs and stories, that it will become clear that all indigenous and land-based knowledge and traditions are of utmost importance, and need to be remembered and protected. There are people on this spheric rock that have lived here for millennia, without having created the climate issues we as the Global North have created. I believe that what they see and hear and have to say is vital as we head more and more towards climate collapse.

“So in the Land, so in the body
So in the Body, so in the Land”
- D E E P S O I L, 2020


[1] Turtle Island is a name for the Earth and/or for North America, used by several First Nations peoples and some Indigenous rights activists.


This interview was originally published at Mister Motley Magazine in December, 2020. It was also published on the website of ARTEZ Studium Generale, where I took place in a panel on land, ownership and decolonization. Here are a lot of interesting links, texts, interviews about LAND.

Here is the video of the ARTEZ Studium Generale talk on "LAND" (NL):

Here are two earlier talks with Chihiro Geuzenbroek (ENG + NL):

Here is a link to the website of Chihiro Geuzenbroek with amazing resources:
Decolonizing knowledge: acknowledge epistemicide & taking TEK seriously

Here are two articles about permaculture and the issue of appropriation and neo-colonisation:
How to decolonize the permaculture movement
White Amnesia in an Apolitical Permaculture Movement

Bayo Akomolafe on romanticizing of 'Indigenous" and "Right Relationships" :

Translation by Ailisha Shannon and Jasper Griepink, 2021.

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