The Asymmetry International Symposium 2023

Energies of Attachment: Mapping Intimacy across Art, Science and Ecology

Intimacy, with its potential for mutual and nonnormative, asymmetrical yet affective relationships, channels profound energies to repair epistemological frictions in times of ecological crises. Beyond the interpersonal sphere, intimacy expands across multiple scales, encompassing geographic, terrestrial, and other-worldly dimensions, as well as the biotechnological, cybernetic, and microbial realms that shape our present-day climatic challenges. This one-day cross-disciplinary symposium gathers practitioners to explore the manifold possibilities of intimacy in addressing and tinkering with ecological ruptures. The symposium aims to elicit critical and imaginative responses to the following inquiries:

  • How can we effectively map, narrate, and mediate intimacy across species, scales, and temporalities, spanning individual bodies and psyches, communities, environments, landscapes, and entire ecosystems?
  • Can assemblages such as forests, soil, bodies of water, and more serve as conceptual frameworks, socio-cultural realities, and visionary ‘zones of familiarity’ that nurture entangled matters — biotic or abiotic, human and otherwise?
  • How do we make sense of the mutability of intimacy regarding care and violence, conviviality and competition, mutualism and parasitism, within myriad ecological relations in general and in particular?
  • Can artistic practices, creativity, critical thinking, and knowledge-making processes offer fresh insights into understanding intimacy within the intricate dynamics of ecological interconnectedness?

Organised by Dr Feixuan Xu (Asymmetry Postdoctoral Fellow, The Courtauld) and Dr Wenny Teo (Senior Lecturer, Modern and Contemporary Art, The Courtauld). 

This annual symposium is generously supported by the Asymmetry Art Foundation


9:30 – 9:45: WELCOME

Dr Feixuan Xu (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

9:45 – 10:45: KEYNOTE LECTURE 1

‘Eco Queer Intimacy’, Dr Zheng Bo (City University of Hong Kong)

10:45 – 11:00: BREAK

11:00 – 12:45: PANEL A: Bonding with Land and Earth

Chair: Dr Wenny Teo (The Courtauld)

‘Mediating the Feral Assemblage: Drone as a Sentient Being’, Mia Yu (Independent curator)

‘From “Human Mine” to “Energy Battle”: Extractive Capitalism and Relationality in Post-Reform China’, Dr Loretta Lou (Durham University)

‘Soilkin: Relational Exercises with Soil and Stones’, Dr Alexandra R. Toland (Bauhaus University Weimar)

12:45 – 13:45 LUNCH (Provided for speakers and chairs)

13:45 – 15:30 PANEL B: Microbial, Vegetal and Animal Kin

Chair: Nick Yu (Asymmetry Art Foundation)

‘Contemplating with Viruses’, Pei-Ying Lin (Artist)

‘Pious Intimacy’, Dr Franklin Ginn (University of Bristol)

‘Violent Intimacy: A Minoritarian Semiotics of Contamination in Jes Fan’s Work’, Sophie Guo (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

15:30 – 15:50: BREAK

15:50 – 16:10: SCREENING

Introduced by Michèle Ruo Yi Landolt (Asymmetry Art Foundation)

‘羽化 (wings becoming)Enzo Camacho & Ami Lien (Artists and Writers)

16:15 – 17:15: KEYNOTE LECTURE 2

‘Guddling About: An Intimate Artistic Practice with Rivers, Lakes, Drains, Puddles, Sewage Works, and Other Watery Bodies’, Prof Minty Donald (University of Glasgow)

17:15 – 17:30 CLOSING REMARKS

Dr Feixuan Xu (The Courtauld)

17:30 – 19:00: WINE RECEPTION

This event has passed.

1 Dec 2023

Friday 1st December 2023, from 9.30am GMT

Free, booking essential

Vernon Square Campus, Lecture Theatre 2

This is an in person event at our Vernon Square campus.

This event is now fully booked. Please contact for more information about the waitlist.





Eco Queer Intimacy

Abstract: We are killing countless other beings, and we are killing ourselves. Over the past ten years, making art with plants has allowed me a spacetime to practice living a better life, a more eco queer intimate life. I will reflect on my recent collaborations with human and plant dancers, and imagine, tentatively, how art can celebrate living instead of killing.

Zheng Bo is an ecoqueer artist of ethnic Bai heritage. Through drawing, dance and film, they cultivate kinships with plants. These relations are aesthetic, erotic, and political. For them, art does not arise from human creativity, but more-than-human vibrancy. Bo lives in a village on the south side of Lantau Island, Hong Kong. Guided by Daoist wisdom, they grow weedy gardens, living slogans, biophilia films, and ecosocialist gatherings. These diverse projects, alive and entangled, constitute a garden where they collaborate with both human and nonhuman thinkers and activists. In 2023 Bo is working on the Artist’s Garden commission at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and three botanical public works outside Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. In 2022 they presented a forest dance film titled Le Sacre du printemps at the 59th Venice Biennale. Bo received their PhD from University of Rochester. They taught at China Academy of Art from 2010 to 2013, and currently teaches at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.

In the Distant Embrace of the Changbai Mountains: Drone as a Sentient Being

Abstract: Drawing from my ongoing projects on the extractive frontiers of Northeast China, my talk will address how drone can be imagined and engaged as a sentient being that evokes emotive and affective kinship between the human and the more-than-human in artist films. How can drone enmesh the human agent, the post-extractive landscape and technology in fluid, dynamic, and amorphous forms of intimacies that transcend national borders and temporal-spatial specificities? How can drone help us gain new understandings on “energy” as both the material stuff of the cosmos and a relational ethics of care?

Mia Yu is a Beijing-based art historian, curator, and educator. Her research interests include Asian geopolitics, energy politics and the Anthropocene from the perspective of Northeast China. She was the winner of the Yishu Award for Critical Writing on Contemporary Art (2018), the recipient of the Tate Asia Research Travel Fellowship (2017), and the CCAA Art Critic Award (2015). She is on the jury committee for the Hyundai Blue Prize For Emerging Curators. As an adjunct professor, she has lectured at China Art Academy, China Central Art Academy, Xi’an Art Academy, and Peking University. In 2021, Mia Yu initiated a long-term curatorial project “The Anthropocene North” that is focused on ecological entanglements and sensibilities from the perspective of Northeast Asia.

From “Human Mine” to “Energy Battle”: Extractivist Capitalism and Relationality in Post-Reform China

Abstract: This paper examines the influences of extractivist capitalism on interpersonal relationships in post-reform China. Based on three years of digital ethnographic observation and critical discourse analysis from 2020 to 2023, this research scrutinizes relationship advice offered by college students and young professionals on various online Chinese forums. Specifically, it investigates the rise of two popular internet terms, “human mine” (ren kuang) and “energy battle” (nengliang zhan), to illuminate exploitation, competition, and relationality in contemporary China. In exploring the aspirations and challenges faced by this demographic, I argue that the metaphors of human mines and energy battle are deeply rooted in extractivist capitalism, a force that has become increasingly pervasive and entrenched in China since its economic reform in the late 20th century.

Loretta Lou is Assistant Professor in Social Anthropology at Durham University. She specializes in the study of environment, health, activism, and self-development in East Asia. Her first project was an ethnographic study of “Green Living” in Hong Kong and its implications for self-development, relationality, everyday ethics, and social movements. Building on her interest in environmental activism in East Asia, her second research project, funded by the European Research Council, “Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry,” focuses on the ways Chinese people negotiate and make sense of toxic pollution, their perceptions of (environmental) injustice, and how they cope with contrived ignorance. In her research projects, she questions the interplay between freedom and (inter-)dependency, resistance and resilience, noticing and unnoticing, and the production of knowledge and ignorance in the most mundane forms in everyday life.


Soilkin: Relational Exercises with Soil and Stones

Abstract: In the essay About a Stone: Some Notes on Geologic Conviviality, Hugo Reinert (2016) poses the question: “What modes of passionate immersion – or love, or intimacy could a stone afford?” Drawing on ideas from multispecies ethnography, geontology, performance research, queer-feminist STS, and the history and philosophy of soil science, the Soilkin project responds to Reinert’s provocation in the far north by tracing the glacial journey of kindred stones from Sámi lands in Norway to an end moraine north of Berlin. Situated in a fluid space between environmental humanities and artistic research, the Soilkin project develops a series of Fluxus-inspired, relational exercises to provoke reflection on the individual and collective agency of mineral and more-than mineral others and the boundaries of what it means to be alive. The exercises are envisaged as embodied thought-experiments, to be tested and developed in different ecologies with different actors, seeking kinships across spheres, knowledge-cultures, generations, and communities of practice.

Alexandra Regan Toland is Associate Professor for Arts and Research at the Bauhaus University Weimar and co-chair of the Commission on the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Soils of the International Union of Soil Sciences. She earned her MFA from the Dutch Art Institute (DAI) and a doctorate degree in landscape planning from the TU-Berlin as a DFG fellow in the Perspectives of Urban Ecology Graduate Research Group. Alex has published widely on artistic (research) practices as they relate to soil protection and the Anthropocene and her works have been exhibited at Ars Electronica, Museum Schloß Moyland, German Hygiene Museum Dresden, and the Centre for Contemporary Art Glasgow.

Contemplating with Viruses

Abstract: Viruses as the semi-living entities that inactivate and reanimate as they traverse between the boundary of porous bodies, challenge the human definition of self. By constantly challenging our perception of the boundary, viruses serve as a biological reflection, prompting humans to explore our connection with ourselves and other living entities. This talk will journey through my artistic endeavours, examining the multifaceted relationship between humans and viruses, covering aspects ranging from societal interactions and embodiment to genetic integration with viruses.

Pei-Ying Lin is an artist / designer from Taiwan and currently based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Her main focus is on the combination of science and human society through artistic methods, and is particularly interested in building a common discussion ground for different cultural perspective regarding elements that constructs our individual perception of the world. Recently she has been focusing on manipulating the boundary of invisible/visible, living/non-living and finding ways to build tools and methods that facilitate such explorations. She has won the Honorary Mention in Hybrid Arts Category of Ars Electronica 2015, Professional Runner Up in Speculative Concepts of Core 77 Awards 2015, BioArt and Design Award 2016, and the first group of Taiwanese artists of residence in the program of Accelerate@CERN. Her project PSX Consultancy is a permanent collection of Museum of Architecture and Design, Slovenia.


Pious Intimacy

Abstract: This paper looks for intimacy between people and plants amid urban Pakistan’s exclusionary vegetal geographies. We provincialize the tendency in Western, progressive thought to present multispecies alliances and multispecies care as routes to better futures. In seeking to understand patterns of human-plant intimacy we develop the idea of pious natures. Piety is pervasive in Pakistan, from the way state presents itself geopolitically to how individuals reflexively conform to, or contest, Islamic values; piety also plays a key role in shaping appropriate kinds of nature. We analyse private and military uses of plants in con-temporary Pakistani urbanism, drawing on interviews conducted with homeowners, working-class maali (gardeners), state and military horticultural planners, and plant nursery owners. We show how piety has fused with late capitalism, meaning that forms of intimate plant care are oriented towards religious consumption, pan-Islamic nature-culture, and nationalist projects of the militarist-nation state.

Franklin Ginn is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Geography in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, UK. From 2011 to 2015 he was a lecturer in human geography at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Domestic wild: Memory, nature and gardening in suburbia (Routledge, 2016), Co-Editor with Marion Ernwein and James Palmer of The Work That Plants Do: Life, Labour and the Future of Vegetal Economies (2021) and Co-Editor of Environmental Humanities. His research interests include critical plant studies, alternative environmentalisms and nonhuman theory. His current research focuses on the politics and philosophy of plant life, including fieldwork in urban Pakistan, and on Anthroposcenic landscapes in Scotland. Franklin has a PhD in Geography from King’s College London.



Violent Intimacy: A Minoritarian Semiotics of Contamination in Jes Fan’s Work

Abstract: Centring on the video works Xenophoria (2018-2020) and Palimpsest (2023) by Hong Kong artist Jes Fan, this paper posits that the artist’s creation of interspecies intimacy through experiments with bacteria-modelled melanin and pearl farming operates as a minoritarian cultural strategy. This strategy confronts the oppressive political construct known as the chromatic racial scheme. Further, by forging intimacy across species, Fan’s work undermines the ‘self-and-other’ dichotomy, typically reinforced by national borders, which ironically is embedded within the binary logic of ‘politics of recognition’ prevalent in postcolonial political discourses. Contamination, conceptualised as an act of boundary transgression, challenges the notion of a well-demarcated state-body and is often exploited as a pivotal instrument in exclusionary politics. This paper explores how Fan’s metaphorical use of novel host-foreign body relationships in nature and the violent acts of intimacy add complexity to our understanding of postcolonial politics and culture in Hong Kong.

Sophie Guo is an art historian and curator based in London. She recently submitted her doctoral thesis titled Bio-imaginaries: The Art of China and Its Diasporas in the Age of Biotechnology. Her work delves into the intersections of biotechnology and contemporary art in Sinophone cultures, with a particular focus on the body, gender, sexuality, race, and microbial ecology. In the past, she has worked on exhibitions and research projects at the Barbican Art Gallery, Art Pioneer Studio, and various other art galleries. Sophie has given talks at a range of art institutions, most recently at Zabludowicz Collection (2022), The Courtauld Institute (2022), Princeton University (2022), The OCAT Institute (Beijing, 2021), Chisenhale Gallery (2021), Université de Montréal, and City University of Hong Kong (2021). Her writing has appeared in Cultural China 2021: The Contemporary China Centre Review (University of Westminster Press), Immediations, Tate Research Centre: Asia, ArtReview, Wallpaper*, Ocula, The Art Newspaper (China), and LEAP.

羽化 (wings becoming)

Abstract: 羽化 (wings becoming) is a Chinese Taoist term with a double meaning: “to transform into a butterfly” and “to die.” It is the title of Camacho and Lien’s 16mm film, which connects these ideas of transformation and death to a narrative of urban development and displacement. Set in a guerrilla garden patch abutting the FDR Highway in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and tended by Chinese immigrants, the film tracks the appearance and disappearance of a set of artificial butterflies, crafted from handmade paper containing vegetable fibres. The butterflies are ritually set on fire, allowing them to cross the threshold into a world which speaks to other possibilities of living, beyond mere survival within the interstices of an uncaring system.

Enzo Camacho and Ami Lien are artists and writers from the US and the Philippines. Together, they have an artistic practice that moves from the Philippines outwards to other places, addressing localized iterations of labor and capital from the perspective of imperial damage. They have had solo exhibitions at Para Site, Hong Kong (2023); 47 Canal, New York (2022); Kunstverein Freiburg, Freiburg im Breisgau (2018), Germany; and Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (2018). Recent group exhibitions include the Tai Kwun Contemporary (2022), the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia (2021); the 5th New Museum Triennial, New York, USA (2021); the 39th EVA International, Limerick, Ireland (2021); Manifesta 13, Marseille, France (2020); the Drawing Center, New York, USA (2020); the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan (2019), the Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London, London, UK (2019); the NTU Center for Contemporary Art, Singapore (2018); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China (2017), Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, Thailand (2017), and Green Papaya Art Projects (2009). From 2021 – 2023, Camacho and Lien were Fellows at the Graduate School of the Universität der Künste, Berlin, Germany.

Guddling About: An Intimate Artistic Practice with Rivers, Lakes, Drains, Puddles, Sewage Works, and Other Watery Bodies

Abstract: Guddling About is a creative and critical practice initiated by (human) artists Minty Donald and Nick Millar, in collaboration with diverse watery bodies in urban and rural locations. Through an evolving suite of playful and modestly-scaled actions or ‘micro-performances’, Guddling About seeks to critically, but empathetically, navigate and attend to the complexities of humans’ interrelations with water. The presentation will consider: what is at stake and what might be learned through asymmetric, or inequal, collaborations between humans and assemblages like rivers, water pipes or puddles? What role might playful or ‘foolish’ micro-performances play in eliciting experiences and new understanding of more-than-human intimacy?

Minty Donald is an artist and Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice at the University of Glasgow. Minty works with matter or entities often described in Euro-American cultures as other-than-human, most recently rivers and rocks. In her practice, she treats other-than-human matter as a collaborator, acknowledging its liveliness and agency, while also recognising the limits and inequalities of human/other-than-human collaboration. Her practice takes multiple forms, determined by the context in which she is working, but includes performance, sculpture, participatory events and writing. Minty’s practice-research is an attempt to both face up to and unsettle engrained human exceptionalism and its implication in extractive practices and climate emergency. Minty regularly works with (human) collaborator, Nick Millar. Her recent public works include With These Hands… (2021), Erratic Drift (2019 – ongoing) and Aguas Ocultas, Aguas Olvidadas (2018-21). Minty also taught performance design at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (then RSAMD) and public art on the Sculpture and Environmental Art programme at Glasgow School of Art.

Photograph showing a close up of two faces licking ferns.
Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 4, 2019. Video (4K, color, sound), 16 min. Courtesy of the artist