One of the most important languages for expressing the values of the commons, I have come to realize, is art. It can often express visceral knowledge more effectively than words and give those insights a more powerful cultural reality.
Those were my thoughts when I saw “Seeing Wetiko,” an “online gallery” of artworks, music and videos just released by the global arts collective The Rules. “Artists and activists from around the world have come together in a burst of creative energy to popularize the Algonquin concept of wetiko, a cannibalistic mind virus they claim is causing the destruction of the planet,” the group announced.
Wetiko is an indigenous term used to describe “a psycho-spiritual disease of the soul which deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others is logical and moral.” The dozens of artworks on the website convey this idea in vivid, compelling ways. The term wetiko was chosen for the project as a framework for understanding our global crisis, from ecological destruction and homelessness, to poverty and inequality. To illustrate the scope of wetiko today, the website features a wonderful four-minute video, graffiti murals from Nairobi, carved marks from the US, a film about plastic bottle waste in Trinidad and Tobago, and a theater performance about patriarchy in India.
The Rules is a global network of “activists, artists, writers, farmers, peasants, students, workers, designers, hackers and dreamers” who focus on five key areas needing radical change – money, power, secrecy, ideas and the commons.
In an essay in Kosmos Journal describing the wetiko project, Martin Kirk and Alnoor Ladha, co-founders of The Rules, write: “What if we told you that humanity is being driven to the brink of extinction by an illness? That all the poverty, the climate devastation, the perpetual war, and consumption fetishism we see all around us have roots in a mass psychological infection? What if we went on to say that this infection is not just highly communicable but also self-replicating, according to the laws of cultural evolution, and that it remains so clandestine in our psyches that most hosts will, as a condition of their infected state, vehemently deny that they are infected?”
The project organizers cite Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, who explains that “according to strands of Native American philosophy, wetiko is only possible when you commit the fundamental mistake of seeing yourself as an individual separate from the whole, separate from other humans and other non-human forms of being, not just animals and plants but also rivers and forests. It’s only once you presuppose this way of being of separation and disunity, when it’s written into the DNA of your culture, that it becomes possible to instrumentalize other forms of being for your own gain – to consume them for your own enrichment.”
The Rules goes on: “All over the world, there is a feeling that something is deeply wrong. It is often felt more than seen, an unnamed darkness that keeps millions (even billions) of people disconnected from the reality of authentic life-affirming experience. Too many of our so-called leaders are asleep at the wheel — they talk about economic growth-at-all-costs as the only viable solution to mass poverty, wealth inequality, the climate crisis and other planetary-crises humanity must confront in the 21st Century.
“Those with a spiritual bent might say that a shadowy presence has shrouded much of the Earth. People are sleeping through the same nightmare, unable to awaken within the dream.”
By giving a fresh adaptation to the word wetiko, The Rules clearly hope to foster deeper reflection on the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism as a system based on wetiko. “A key lesson from meme theory and the healing arts,” the curators write, “is that when we are conscious of the beliefs that shape our lives we are less likely to replicate them blindly. Conscious awareness is the beginning of an antidote, like green shoots through concrete.”
Lead image by Sara & Vicki Garrett