Ingeborg Reichle talks with Mexican Philosopher María Antonia González Valerio at re:publica in Berlin about the changing agricultural landscape in Mexico

In the context of this year’s Berlin-based re:publica festival, which is coming along with a new hybrid format called #rpCampus, Ingeborg Reichle will be talking on September 23, 2020 with Mexican Philosopher María Antonia González Valerio about the production of maize and GMOs in Mexico and how this problem has been critically addressed in Biotech Art, specifically by the Mexican artistic collective Bios ex Machina and the installation They will be ashes, but will make sense (slightly toxic) that worked in 2012 with transgenic corn.

They will be ashes, but will make sense (slightly toxic) by Bios ex Machina is an installation that engages with the efforts to confront the alterations of the Mexican landscape in recent decades: the transition from traditional agriculture to industrial agribusiness. It focuses on the topic of maize, because maize has a symbolic significance for Mexican culture, being deeply rooted in the national imagery, in the ancient myths, in the food, and further, it can also be thought as an axis of a way of being, of dwelling and transforming nature and culture. The installation acknowledges the challenge that it has been for Mexico to adopt the practices of late capitalism, to change the agricultural landscape in order to cope with the competition of the USA and the Californian crops, and to slowly develop an agricultural industry, which does not consider the traditional crops and farming but sees the land as something instrumental that can be exploited for economic gain and infinite growth.

These social and political transformation processes have led to the loss of Mexico’s national self-sufficiency in maize, which has far reaching consequences for the people, especially in the region of Oaxaca, the country where maize originated. As part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico has been pursuing a liberalization of agricultural trade since 1994, which has led to a drastic increase in imported corn from the partner countries USA and Canada. With these imports, genetically modified maize has finally arrived in the region that is the cradle of maize and has contaminated maize varieties in Oaxaca. In 2001 American scientists first detected traces of genetically modified maize in the region of the Sierra Juárez and published their results in the journal Nature. The article triggered an unprecedented controversy in the life sciences, and also led to social mobilization such as the Mexico-wide campaign “Sin maíz no hay país” (“No country without corn”) and fostered active resistance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and created a vital public discourse that focuses on the cultural significance of traditional maize varieties.

From September 21 to 25, 2020, the focus of #rpCampus will be on sustainability and its interplay with digitization. The topic “Über:Leben” (“about life”, which also means “to survive”) will deal about life from the perspective of nutrition and food production and will address questions like how we live—with each other, against each other, for each other, and in harmony with the planet? Can we only survive if we use digital technologies or are there limits to digitization that we should not cross? The consumption of food and nutrients, or energy in the abstract sense, is probably common to all forms of life and thus offers us a suitable start on the sustainable spectrum of topics. The political explosiveness of the debate about what and how we eat is shown on the one hand by the scandal about the poor working conditions in the meat industry, which have led to new corona hotspots. On the other hand, one can refer here to hostile working conditions in Europe for undocumented fugitives who pick tomatoes for a living in the European community at a pittance wage and without a contract of employment, thus undercutting the prices for small farmers in Europe and North Africa. This issue is thus particularly intertwined with globalization.

Some suspect the massive use of antibiotics to trigger this or subsequent pandemics or at least the production of multi-resistant germs. It is particularly important to us to separate justified criticism of globalization from conspiracy stories and to conduct a debate based on current research. At the same time, we do not shy away from questioning system-inherent grievances and discussing radical proposals for solutions, for example from the Degrowth movement. In workshops and fishbowl discussions we create synergies and symbioses to tackle the crisis of capitalism in the here and now. We are interested in biotechnological solutions as well as in the local agriculture of young farmers.

From Monday to Thursday keynote speeches and panel discussions will be streamed and discussed together with the speakers and the community in digital discussion rooms on the topics of nutrition, health, biodiversity, and transhumanism. During the workshop Friday, the central theses of the week will be picked up and solutions for a sustainable digital future will be worked on together. This event is funded by the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU). Re:publica is a conference in Europe that deals with Web 2.0, especially blogs, social media, and the information society. It takes place annually, usually in May, in Berlin. During three days talks and workshops on various topics are held, ranging from media and culture to politics and technology as well as entertainment. All talks and discussions are streamed directly to the Internet. The conference is organized by the operators of the German blogs Spreeblick and and is funded by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. Re:publica is a variation of res publica which translates into “public matter”.

María Antonia González Valerio, PhD, is a Philosopher and Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She works within the research areas of ontology aesthetics and interdisciplinary arts, sciences, and humanities. She is Head of the research group Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), which gathers together artists, scholars, and scientists in interdisciplinary work that produces education at the undergraduate and postgraduate level, specialized theoretical research, artistic productions, and exhibitions, She is the author of the books Cabe los límites: Escritos sobre filosofía natural desde la ontología estética (México: UNAM/Herder, 2016), Un tratado de ficción (México: Herder, 2010), and El arte develado (México: Herder, 2005). She is Coordinator of the art collective BIOS Ex Machina: Workshop for the Fabrication of the Human and the Non-Human which develops projects of transgenic and Biotech Art. She has also curated exhibitions on art and science.

Ingeborg Reichle, PhD, is a professor at the Department of Media Theory at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and serving as founding chair of the Department of Cross-disciplinary Strategies from 2017 till 2018, designing an integrated BA study program on applied studies in art, science, philosophy, and global challenges. Before joining the faculty of the Department of Media Theory as full professor in 2016, she was FONTE professor at Humboldt University Berlin. In 2004 she gained her Ph.D. from the Humboldt University Berlin with the dissertation Age of Technoscience: Genetic Engineering, Robotics, and Artificial Life in Contemporary Art, published in 2009 with Springer publishers, Vienna/New York, at Humboldt University Berlin she also gained her habilitation in 2013. Her area of research is the encounter of the arts with cutting edge technologies such as biotechnology and synthetic biology, taking into account artistic responses as well as the respective discourses in the sciences and our societies in order to develop a critical understanding of the role of twenty-first century arts.