Facing catastrophic climate change, runaway global warming, and environmental destruction worldwide, modern society appears locked in crisis. The 20 artists in this exhibition reflect on that crisis – a crisis that is at once ecological, economic, political, and cultural. It concerns our fraught relationship to the world around us – including the myriad life forms threatened with extinction, biodiverse habitats befouled by the fossil fuel industry, and the planet’s atmosphere filled with greenhouse gas emissions. All of these factors are putting life as we know it at grave risk.

Viewing Earth as an infinite supply of natural resources to be freely exploited by multinational corporate capitalism has been increasingly challenged in recent years. Today, the rights of nature to subsist in a state free from destructive human practices are increasingly being recognized in environmental law as a means to save our fragile existence, even if many legal and political challenges remain.

While such a transformation is global in scope, the Americas, in particular, are the site of intense interrelated legal, political, and cultural developments – from the Southern Cone to the Arctic Circle. These link indigenous movements, political activists, ecologically-concerned artists, and legal and philosophical theories. Bolivia and Ecuador have recently enshrined the rights of Mother Earth in their constitutions and legal systems. Idle No More has joined First Nations peoples in Canada and the USA via environmental activism.

Each of these developments has contributed in significant ways to this bi-continental shift - a shift that has also been mirrored in recent philosophical developments. New materialism, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology and new genres of eco-feminism are rethinking humanity’s relation to non-human life, contesting the anthropocentrism of instrumental reason and the assumed human sovereignty over the environment. Together these varied discourses demand a newly egalitarian way of being-in-the-world, of seeing humans and ecology as inextricably intertwined, of endowing non-human objects and life forms with agency and legal standing. The outcome is a cultural-political-philosophical revolution that is redefining our relation to the world.

This research-intensive exhibition aims to explore how an international grouping of artists and activists – all with links to the Americas – are participating in this transformation. How are they considering these questions, advancing their own analyses, and producing creative modelling that express the fundamental principles of rights that transcend human subjects? In refusing to surrender the term “nature”, as is proposed in the post-natural discourse of recent ecocritical theory, we trace the cultural resonances of eco-centric legal developments, Amerindian cosmologies referring to Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), and speculative object-oriented philosophy. This is not in order to retain the outdated concept of a pure realm apart from the human, but rather to register a new conception of nature located within indigenous rights struggle, Earth law, and political ecology.

Rights of Nature will occupy all four of Nottingham Contemporary’s galleries. The art works will be loosely arranged in geographical order, suggesting a journey from north to south across the Americas. In this way regional ecologies will come into focus – including the Amazon, the Central Andes and the Gulf of Mexico – along with the politics, economics, histories and traditions that have shaped them.

The larger historical backdrop will also become apparent, beginning with the European conquest of indigenous people, the near-extermination of their cultures and habitats, and the subsequent brutally exploitative, extractivist, export-based economies that characterised the colonial era. The neo-colonial eras of European and American economic and political hegemony that succeeded them, and the neoliberal, US-backed period of military dictatorships in the 60s, 70s and 80s also have continuing legacies for political ecology in the Americas to this day. Rights of Nature exposes the imposition of the European idea of human mastery of the planet. This contrasts with human cultures that regard themselves as belonging to the ecological continuum, and defining forms of resistance to the economic exploitation of the Earth and its life-forms that now draw inspiration from and make solidarity with the leadership, rights and philosophy of indigenous peoples.

The selection of artists spans generations and covers large areas of the Western Hemisphere. Their works take many forms, including drawing, sculpture, installation, performance and film. They are variously documentary, research-orientated, poetically-idiosyncratic and socially interventionist in approach. Some of the artists are collectives (two run NGO-type organisations) and some are of indigenous backgrounds. Popular visual expression is shown alongside conceptually-based work.

Many of the artists are themselves significant ecological researchers and commentators. They will be joined by other leading ecological thinkers in our Public Programme of lectures, conferences and film screenings, delivered in partnership with The University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University.

A key aim of the exhibition is to reveal how contemporary art contributes to the global project of rethinking – and radically reconciling – our species’ relationship with other living things, on whose regeneration and survival our future depends. Rights of Nature considers how a diverse set of practitioners have imagined, or attempted to realise, what Naomi Klein, in her recent book This Changes Everything, describes as a world we want to live in – where “we” is no longer limited to an exceptional and autonomous humanity.

Artists: Allora & Calzadilla, (US and Cuba), Eduardo Abaroa (Mexico), Ala Plástica (Argentina), Darren Almond (UK), Marcos Avila Forero (Colombia), Amy Balkin (USA), Subhankar Banerjee (USA), Mabe Bethônico (Brazil), Ursula Biemann & Paulo Tavares (Switzerland & Brazil), Center for Land Use Interpretation (USA), Minerva Cuevas (Mexico), Jimmie Durham (Native American), Harun Farocki (Germany), GIAP: Grupo de Investigación en Arte y Política (with Beatriz Aurora) (Chile, Italy, Mexico), Paulo Nazareth (Brazil), The Otolith Group (UK), Fernando Palma Rodríguez (Mexico), Claire Pentecost (USA), Abel Rodríguez (Colombia), Miguel Angel Rojas (Colombia), Walter Solón Romero (Bolivia).

Curated by TJ Demos and Alex Farquharson, with Irene Aristizábal