Joseph Redwood-Martinez on the scarcity of simplicity

What if we just abandoned this compulsion toward complexity and, instead, revisited this effort to live simply within systems we understand?

In a great new reader by SALT ( of Istanbul, entitled, “One day, everything will be free“, Joseph Redwood-Martinez replies to artist-intellectual ‘Federica’, who initially called for a complexification of thought to accompany the complexification of our reality:

What compels you to further complicate a situate that is fragmented and complex? In what ways do you feel this approach will allow you to make a meaningful contribution to this field? Where are you receiving this idea that there is a need for actors to not provide clarity but to produce further complexities and complications? Would it be possible, instead, to not just describe, but to perform a discursive shift wherein that which is produced is no longer capable of being perpetually reinscribed into and sustained by the very conditions which it presumes to critique?

But this is not the way forward, on the contrary, a return to simplicity is needed and Joseph refers to his own experience in a center for sustainable farming in India (excerpt only):

“As part of an ex situ residency in relation to this project I’ve been organizing at SALT, in Istanbul, I’m staying right now at a community associated with the Center for Sustainable Farming, in Southern India. Drawing from natural farming and common-sense practices from traditional agriculture, the whole place was deliberately designed around simple systems that require for minimum inputs and maintenance. Five days a week, we wake up around sunrise and everyone begins work together at 6:15 am. We plant seeds in the nursery, weed the vegetable beds, make compost, mulch the cashew and mango trees, harvest fruits and vegetables, and so on. Nothing we do is terribly demanding, and there is no need to use machines or expensive tools. Our work, which is more of a meditation than anything else, lasts until 9:00 am, when we all gather for breakfast on the veranda of the main hut. Once breakfast is served, everyone is free to decide how they will use the rest of the day–some stay around to read a book or jump in the mud pool, others go immediately into town to meet with friends or help someone with a project. It’s rather simple, really, and I’ve taken to this way of life much more than I had anticipated. The way things are structured here gives people the time to really observe their surroundings, to develop a meaningful understanding of the processes within which they play a part, and to which they contribute with their daily actions.

In trying to grasp the constellation of factors that account for this place existing in the first place, I’ve been spending most of my time learning about sustainable agriculture from Vivek, one of the permanent residents of this community.


About six years ago, Vivek was working on a PhD in biology, conducting research on hybrid plants and preparing to write his dissertation. He was in an extremely academic environment where people were always trying to think of “more sophisticated” ways of doing agriculture with the assistance of technological innovations. In India, at least, this leads to a situation where many graduate students are working in university labs funded by biotech companies, or funded by seed companies owned by chemical companies owned by pharmaceutical companies. They work on a very specific project, usually unaware of how it exactly will be implemented or whose interests it serves, but they are always told, and believe, that through their lab work, they are making a meaningful and necessary contribution toward more sophisticated, intelligent agriculture and health care systems. The research topic could be related to pest control, crop failure, loss of soil quality–there is a range of typical subjects–but the solution, in these contexts, is always presumed to be found in further innovation. Whatever the problem is, with enough research funding and lab work, these students come to really believe that some type of fix can be developed to treat all of the symptoms. Or at least bring them into a manageable level.

But this scenario where we are driven not by addressing the root of the problem and instead only toward more sophisticated, complex, and complicated ways of working–this scenario is never questioned. But this is obvious–that those in a position to actually make a decision are precisely the ones who can’t afford to question this premise. And this is simply because they know very well that it would threaten their job prospects, social status, and very way of life if the solutions they are calling for were to be found in simple, clear, and intuitive methods that can easily be practiced and taught. So, instead, they come to depend on–and perpetuate–complexity, hierarchy, and scarcity.

There are research grants, expensive labs, field stations, and tenure positions established. Ambition and prestige become a motivating factor and people are soon willing to work completely isolated, on a single project, just for the opportunity to get published, or even reasonably recognized in their sub-field. This results in a situation where very few people have an idea of the overall picture–they know what they are working on, but it is never clear what they are working toward. And of course, this is paradigmatic of the root problem of everything we’re dealing with right now–from the collapse of the financial system to the degradation of biodiversity–the root problem has to do with a complete failure of holistic thinking in a world of increasingly complex, fragmented, and ubiquitous information.

When Vivek started to investigate the larger context around his work, he learned that his research–and entire university department–was being supported by a seed company owned by a chemical company (and this was all owned by a pharmaceutical company). The coffee seeds he was working to hybridize were given away for free to farmers in East Africa. But since the hybrid varieties were highly dependent on chemical fertilizers in order to germinate, develop, and provide fruit, this gift obliged the farmer to later buy massive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and so on. The seed Vivek was producing was highly efficient in the first generation, but the companies he was working for understood very well that the hybrid varieties would devastate the soil and require the permanent management of the system–the gifted seeds initiated a cycle wherein the East African farmers became completely dependent on the chemical companies. And, ultimately, the conditions are made ripe for the pharmaceutical companies to move in.

The moment Vivek put together this whole picture–that in the name of complexity and sophistication he was actually working to guarantee dependency on a seed company backed by a chemical company backed by a pharmaceutical company–he left his position at the lab. He walked in thinking that he would be working toward some type of viable solution–some better way of working–but he left when he realized that his work was essentially developing the problems that would keep the next generation of bioengineers busy. Sustaining crisis. Always distant, at something of a remove–on our computer screen or repressed by our psychic coping mechanisms–but also always here, variously present.


I’ve been thinking about how this applies to what has characterized my general approach these last few years. I’ve maintained that the task at hand is to make a meaningful contribution to the discourse. But this is always predicated on the assumption that we need more sophisticated, complex ways of thinking and working. We find ourselves at lecture series and panel discussions, or editing critical journals that we don’t even have the time to read because we’re just barely making our deadlines. We’ve become as odd and obvious as vulnerable: always already aware that our work in this capacity depends on a sustained complacency in relation to that very thing toward which we’re supposedly critical. Complacent, because you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. You take the money and run. But the press conference becomes too painful. It catches up with you, anyway, this rhetoric of distraction and appeasement.

We used to think that it was just a funding problem: an uncomfortable structural contradiction that within the context of art, the most apparently democratic discourse was supported by the most un-democratic forces in society. But this issue with the support structures goes at least one step further. We’ve internalized our complacency to the point of perpetuating it on an affective register. We’re participating in what has become a niche discursive industry out of criticizing dependency and pitiful working conditions–but the tools we use to make our efforts recognizable simultaneously act as structures of subjectivization and self-management consistent with our contemporary form of capitalism. Continuous interest. Perpetual noise. We’re working too much; we’re constantly distracted. We don’t have time to think. I thought we were doing something that wasn’t supposed to get reinscribed back into the system, but at the end of the day, it just follows the status quo of what capitalism has set up for us and how it expects us to perform as a subject. We are ready and able, exactly up to the point of having to really actualize critique. Because right at that point, we would no longer recognize ourselves.

The task at hand is to imagine that which does not exist, in order to bring to nothing that which is. But at the same time, the task at hand is to grasp the significance of what is, to perform–on a bodily and discursive level–a shift away from the rhetoric of distraction and appeasement.

To make our current way of life obsolete. On its way out, so to speak, together with the system that made it possible.

But what if we just abandoned this compulsion toward complexity and, instead, revisited this effort to live simply within systems we understand.

The root problem of everything we’re dealing with right now has to do with a complete failure of holistic thinking in a world of increasingly complex, fragmented, and ubiquitous information. Furthermore, we have lost the capacity to take something seriously as a solution unless it, too, is complex.

We’ve entirely missed the point of critique if we manage to convince ourselves that the solution lies in the substitution of one ideology for another. One complexity or obfuscation with another. Or even worse, to think we can innovate our way out of the crises we’ve gotten ourselves into.

A this is precisely where Vivek had arrived when he left his position at the research lab. The highly complex agricultural systems he was working to develop were structurally incomplete, required constant maintenance, and, in the long run, effectively destroyed the social and natural environment in which they operated. In order to complete the research required for his dissertation, Vivek opted instead to set up his own initiative. In this way, his work at what became the Center for Sustainable Farming can be seen as a response–an attempt at working with extremely simple systems to meet our needs through a collaboration instead of competition with ecological processes.”

* Author bio:

‘Joseph Redwood-Martinez is an artist and writer from the United States. His writing has appeared in Frieze, Modern Painters, and Contemporary Art + Visual Culture Broadsheet, and he is a contributing editor to Ment journal for culture and politics. A book of his recent writing, titled event statements, was published in April 2011 by Publication Studio. He has shown work and curated programs in Sweden, Germany, Turkey, the UK, and the United States.”

1 Comment Joseph Redwood-Martinez on the scarcity of simplicity

  1. Avatargregorylent

    to the mystic the universe is pure simplicity .. what is scarce is mystics 🙂

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