Ways to Cross Country: A response to ‘Thinking Landscape’


                                          Thinking Landscape:                                                        Data, geography, arts, writing, patterns, collecting and interdisciplinarity

Seminar and Workshop16th September, 2016: http://www.uowblogs.com/meco/2016/08/29/thinking-landsca…erdisciplinarity/ Presenters: Mitchell Whitelaw (School of Art, ANU), Harriet Hawkins (Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London), and Su Ballard (School of the Arts, English and Media, University of Wollongong). Sixteen people—artists, geographers, writers, museum curators, digital humanities’ scholars, postgraduate researchers, inter/cross/postdisciplinary thinkers—gathered in the Research Hub of the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts for this day event. The seminar and workshop was developed under the auspices of the Material Ecologies Research network (MECO) in partnership with AUSCCER (the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research) and the Global Challenges programme.

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Ways to Cross Country: On Thinking Landscape

             

In the Illawarra, Gula becomes Kurrilwa on the easterly journey from the Gundungurra plateau and escarpment Country to the Dharawal coastal plain language of Wodi Wodi voices, but Koala is the same animal, character, agent, and traditional story-maker. The one who paddled a canoe to the entrance of Lake Illawarra where it was holed by Brolga, a dancing companion. The canoe overturned to become Windang Island, the isle still there at the entrance. In another traditional Illawarra story, Brolga dances on the Whale’s canoe until a hole is made, and the canoe is pushed a short distance to shore to become Gun-man-gang, the modern Windang Island.[1] This is the richness of emplaced Koori story-making: many ways emerge across Country to tie people, place, animals, plants, waters, skies and events into living biogeocultural maps unbound, earth-walked, sounded and internalised— a fundamentally different approach to a western heritage of 2D cartographic representation and 3D topographic modelling. Or is it? Can these ways and perspectives fruitfully meet?

The aim of the day-long event, Thinking Landscape was to bring together interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners to explore and experiment with ‘landscape’ from within the ancient-contemporary Illawarra where the modern university sits, with Lake Illawarra as a focal place of data gathering, thinking and imagining in a hands-on workshop.

Su Ballard introduced the day’s gathering, wondering about landscape less as a memory-made and carried, as art historian Simon Schama explored, and more as lived, contingent, and shared everyday grounds. In her words:

Landscapes are complex objects. They are sites of love and learning, and formed through some kind of coming together of the seen, the heard, and the known. The art historian Simon Schama might disagree, but I think of landscape very simply as the place where we live … Schama would say that landscape is formed in memory, in poetry, and in the stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are. But I’m unsure about how we continue to do this. How do we think landscape in the Anthropocene? How do we imagine an entity that is transforming through our very gaze?’

GeoHumanities’ creative turn: fabulations, scales, and site ontologies

Harriet Hawkins followed with the lecture ‘Anthropocene Fabulations: Geohumanities and our Geophysical Imagination of Global Environmental Change’. Part of her current research project ‘Creating Earth Futures’, and proceeding from ‘the Anthropocene Problem’, Hawkins proposed fabulation and geophysical imagination as a generative mode of response; one where geography and ‘the multiple’ of artistic/ creative practices meet and rethink, materialise, sound, alternatively map, and reword global change challenges at scales beyond a simple global-local dichotomy. Thus, ‘Geophysical Imaginations’ were unpacked in these framings: Scale; Distances-Proximities; and Entanglements. Hawkins questioned the usefulness of prevailing global-local scalar narratives, arguing that global-local is a limiting binary and a maker of flat ‘ontologies’.

But is the image of the blue marble planet really a clichéd, over-familiar and totalising one, as suggested? Many of us ground-dwelling practitioners remain enthralled by the patterns and tracks of atmospheric water vapour visible as white cloud streams flowing from the equator to the poles; the flux and energies of the generative bio-chemo-geosphere revealed in spiralling cyclones and hurricanes; the extent of the Earth’s oceanic claim; the never-static and never-tiring wondering that a new satellite camera panorama uploaded to a virtual web affords a tiny human watcher earthbound on the uppermost layer of revolving crust.

For Hawkins, sliding to the second perspective of thinking Distances-Proximities is to think in scales of distal (furtherest away from a centre) and proximal (nearest): this is intended as a body–focussed scale, a relational closeness and distance. ‘Entanglement’ thinking, proposed as a third approach, might encompass English literature scholar Timothy Morton’s work at the intersection of object-oriented thought and ecologicalism, particularly his notion of meshwork.

Arriving at the embodied scale of ‘Medium Earth’, Hawkins invoked the collaborative art project, The California Project (2015) by the Otolith Group. The work is a site-roaming rendering of vision and sound across each day, from sunrise to sunset, as an experimental approach to geophysical imagining in practice. Here, in the lived uncertainty of immersion in the active earthquake zone explored by the artists, Hawkins finds and speaks a language of ‘listening and looking at the earth’, ‘echoing forms’ (visual and sonic), ‘sensing stories’, ‘far more than words’, and ‘overlapping bodies’, or ‘geobodies’. It is worth noting, here, that ‘geobodies’ is a term already in established, particular use in the ‘planetary aesthetics’ framework of the video essayist and visual theorist Ursula Biemann, one of the World of Matter collective of visual artists and writers.[2] ‘Seismic sensitives’—local people attuned to seismic tremors, however minor and fleeting—are intriguing interlocuters in this project: ‘seismic sensitives’ are less interested in instrumental measurings of amplitude and duration, and more in the transfer of seismic energies to the body. So, for Hawkins, the question ‘what hope is there that art can do much at the ‘scale’ of the geological Anthropocene?’ might be best explored at the scale of human bodies sensing, perceiving, apprehending and making new compositions from and within ‘sites’ of engagement, such as the Californian seismic belt.

Hawkins concluded that geophysical fabulation practices at embodied medium earth scales can converse with the practices of the geological and environmental sciences that employ global-local studies and approaches to knowledge-making in the Anthropocene. From the former, what results, as Hawkins theorises, are new ‘site ontologies’—visual and sonic narratives of hybrid geobodies.

Digital Humanities ‘in dialogue with land

Mitchell Whitelaw took us to data, and data as ‘critical, cultural and creative material’. The day’s topic was to be centred around Drifter, a new work investigating the representation of landscape through its digital traces in cultural and scientific archives. Whitelaw has described Drifter as ‘a multilayered portrait’ of a river system, ‘made out of data’:

Drifter is a digital portrait of the Murrumbidgee river system, drawing on data from       cultural collections, scientific observations, historic images and geospatial sources. It   was created for exhibition at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in conjunction with the Land   Dialogues conference. Drifter is part of a research project on combining digital       scientific and cultural heritage materials to create rich representations of landscape.    It builds on the speculative, generative approaches to digital heritage (Whitelaw           2016: http://mtchl.net/about-drifter/).[3], [4]

By way of introduction, a preface of his earlier work included Weather Bracelet (2009), a 3d print in nylon as a materialisation of 365 days of Canberra weather: this is a wearable dataform. Likewise, the 3d resin print series Measuring Cup (2010) used 160 years of monthly temperature data from the Met Office in the UK to design a tangible cup with a radius that increases in accordance with temperature rises.

In extension, this thinking with data objects, landscape, and the digital humanities in the Anthropocene coalesced in a theme of Landscapes, Hyperobjects, Matters of Concern by which Whitelaw teased out and communicated the conceptual undergirding of Drifter. Thus, Drifter was built by way of a gathering, harvesting, and reflective response to these intersecting ideas and conceptual tactics:

  1. ‘Landscape as Hyperobject?’: this was a riff on Morton’s ‘zero personal landscape’ in which a hyperobject is always beyond tangible and conceptual grasp—and (individual) human agency. Consider styrofoam as hyperobject, or radioactivity as hyperobject.
  2. ‘Matters of Concern’—a conceptual model—referencing Bruno Latour’s ‘matters of concern and matters of fact’, and ‘bringing bits together as a tactic’ (a formal and cultural technique), ‘knots’, and Donna Haraway’s ‘ethic of care’.
  3. ‘Representing Matters of Concern’. Responding to Latour’s challenge for thoughtful practice in the Anthropocene, the questions asked and responded to in building Drifter were: ‘Where are the visualisation tools’ of matters of concern’ beyond ‘deconstruction’? How to ‘draw things together’?

Mitchell described how Drifter evolved to be this ‘random machine that plays the data’ harvested from diverse sources related to the Murrumbidgee River, with the aim to put into conversation human and nonhuman voices. His website describes the components of Map, Sifter, and Compositor and the vast array of sources that he used in more detail (see http://mtchl.net/drifter/map.html). But a lecture is where insights behind the technical processes are also shared. For example, a particular desire was to braid human activities and scales of connection and use—irrigated agriculture, personal stories of river experiences, local witness—with the voices of frogs, also local ‘witnesses’ of riverine living. As well as drawing on the amphibian acoustic archive of herpetologist Murray Littlejohn, he searched for historical accounts of ‘nonhumans in the news’ (rare) alongside those of people and the river in local papers. He spoke about his use of ‘donated’ wetland field photography by the landscape ecologist, Dr Skye Wesson, of the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University. It is telling that these landscape photographs by scientists were revealed to Whitelaw as ‘photographs of intimacy and care’—landscape portraiture, no less. It is a reminder that the embedded landscape work of ecological scientists is often equally a field of intimacy, close witness, aesthetic pleasures, and renderings into other forms alongside species lists and management plans. The former— also fieldworks—most often remain invisible affective-creative makings to practitioners in the arts and humanities who express surprise at such ‘passions’ and productions.

In Whitelaw’s account there was a language of ‘harvest’, ‘access’, ‘do things to it [the data]’ for ‘playful, performative, speculative’ purposes—and it is here that Whitelaw’s creative ‘authoring’ is also embedded. Nevertheless, there is in the troves of all sources, an undeniable collective authoring by all data makers—from the newspaper reportage, to the citizen scientist images of river bios, to oral lore about the presence of a river bunyip. A lingering question remains: how to acknowledge authorship of the vast crop of online uploaders if we acknowledge that their harvested data has personal mattering already? In addressing the seemingly bigger ‘matters of concern’ by a designer-artist-thinker, is this in any way a new territorialisation of private-public data for artistic or scholarly aims and gains? Are there ethical questions that need to be opened out here about the digital Commons, such as those that have been posed in relation to the landed Commons over centuries, and again now in the Anthropocene, in the face of state resumption of public forests for private coal mines or coal seam gas extraction?[5] How to co-author or sympatrically author the multitude in the bigger digital landscape portrait? Even if, as Whitelaw points out, design decisions are made at each stage of the process, affording ‘authorial intervention’ throughout?

Other provocations are evident in Mitchell Whitelaw’s musing about ‘Data—The Troublesome Trace’. He observes that even though there can never be unequivocal verification in hindsight when tracing the ‘truthfulness’ of historical newspaper reports, this data is still indexical, intimate, and can affect us: it ‘touches and stays’. Ultimately, these ‘representational fragments’ of data operate together to compose a new synthesis. In doing so, the mode is generative; it affords digital landscaping of the river course through the ‘unforeseeable collisions’ generated by the combinatorial and compositional elements of the restless Drifter portrait maker. And, if landscape is always mediated, valued by what we select to communicate, the data-fed riparian landscapings of Drifter are curiously both random, ‘unintentional’, authored, and deeply reflective of the maker and his motivations, aesthetic judgements and affective energies of push and pull—that internal oaring that the Murrumbidgee River clearly exerts on Whitelaw as a designer-scholar drifter denizen.

Afternoon Workshop: Lake Illawarra

In her morning introduction to Mitchell’s talk, Su Ballard quoted his lyrical description that articulates the generative nature of Drifter: [It] ‘collides its fragments to spark fleeting insights and moments of clarity, beauty and mourning’.[6] Working in small groups, and replete with the morning’s talks and ideas, the afternoon workshop extended the drift to the spaces around the more local watered lens of Lake Illawarra. Mitchell’s stages of ‘Analysing’; ‘Linking and Mashing Up’; and ‘Performing/ Staging’ were way markers through this.

We began to gather data—digital, at a remove from the physical site of the lake twelve kilometres to the south of us—but as Mitchell said ‘data attaches itself people’, and individual practices and interest guided the types of material ‘harvested’ or traced. The group research embraced Koori long histories of occupation and place-making; the British colonising sea and land incursions into the Illawarra and the lake locale; multicultural material artefacts, poems, paintings, lakeside tryst locations and courtship tales; modern land transformations; shark and whale stories from newspaper reports; the Port Kembla coal port, steel works, emissions stacks and heavy metals; the Tallawarra power station (once coal, now coal seam gas fired); and the shifting health of the lake waters. Although only intended as an introductory insight into the processes of Drifter, we started to recompose the indexical, the troublesome, the affective, the partial, into alt-forms of poems, maps, imaginings, potential. The Lake, itself, well beyond direct sensory apprehension, quickly got sticky: the next pull surely would be to ground-truth particular sites, geobodies and fleeting collisions met in the virtual trawl—but in place, and in the round.

Black Coal, White Clay

The historian Michael Organ has written that whilst the word ‘Illawarra’ is ‘obviously Aboriginal in origin, its precise meaning is unclear. One interpretation is that it is derived from or is an English misspelling of the word ‘Eloura’, meaning anything from ‘a pleasant place’ to the area about Lake Illawarra, or the lake itself. [7] An early European account refers to Illawarra as meaning ‘white clay hills, or mountains’—compounded of ‘Ilia,’ whiteclay, and ‘Warra,’ a big hill, or mountain”.[8] The geographical name, Lake Illawarra (previously Illawarra Lake) is recorded to be an adaptation of the Indigenous word ‘Elouera’, ‘Eloura’ or ‘Allowrie’, variously translated as pleasant place near the sea, or, high place near the sea, or, white clay mountain. ‘Wurra’ or ‘Warra’ probably means mountain and ‘Illa’ may be white clay.[9] White clay and black coal. Horizontal bands of white clay interlayered with the black coal lodes of the Illawarra Coal Measures are starkly visible on the exposed coastal headland at Austinmer today.[10] The Illawarra Coal Measures are dated to the late Permian, 253–263 million years ago (mya)—the coal marks the Great Permian Extinction/ the Permian-Triassic Extinction event/ the Great Dying/ the End Permian Extinction event that occurred around 252 mya.[11] The contemporary micro-macro Anthropocene is inextricably enmeshed with coal, with the antiquated cultural practice of combusting these reservoirs of ancient carbon-based lifeforms petrified after planetary-scale mass extinction events. In the Illawarra, these black coal lodes point to the Third Mass Extinction on Earth, and, curiously also now to the Sixth, the present epochal event conceded by biologists to be well underway in this century.[12] This deep time irony—another unsettling—reveals itself to all who look at and think about local Illawarra lands in passages of bio-geo earth time, as well as frames of space.

Throughout the seminar and workshop, a handful of moist basaltic clay dug from an Illawarra highland paddock, and which had travelled down the Macquarie Pass to the day’s outing on the coastal plain, remained sealed in its plastic honey pot. But, it was there, and its rich ochre-orange aromatic presence was a silent reminder of place idiosyncrasy and interconnectedness, sustenance and surprise: that the word landscape might also hold and ferment other situated wordings, worldings and knowledges: a scalp, a decal, clans, a clade, a dance.

Last words

One month later, at another event in the same room in which we had gathered that day, the educator and artist Jade Kennedy of Wollongong said this about his ancestral-contemporary Dharawal country of the Illawarra: ‘I don’t own a … piece of this place, but it is still my Country and I am responsible for it’.

As another type of grounding on an ancient, multi-nation continent, Kennedy succinctly remade landscape as belonged-by Country, neither monological, nor human-centred, affording agency and creativity to a local multiplicity, to nonhuman-human beings and forces, and especially those denizen artists-geographers-writers-dataformers-thinkers who wish to continue the walking, thinking and feeling of ‘landscape’. His words are a generative invitation and challenge.

Louise Boscacci, 30 October 2016 

 

[1] Wesson, S 2009, Murni Dhungang Jirrar – Living in the Illawarra, Office of Environment & Heritage (OEH), State of New South Wales, http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/cultureheritage/illawarraAboriginalResourceUse.pdf

[2] Ursula Biemann: http://www.geobodies.org/

World of Matter: http://www.worldofmatter.net/; Arns, I (ed.) 2015, World of Matter, Sternberg Press, Berlin.

[3] Whitelaw, M 2016: http://mtchl.net/about-drifter/

[4] The author encountered Mitchell’s Drifter project on the micromedia platform Twitter, another fleeting digital space of gathering and communication, as part of the publicity for the Land Dialogues (Interdisciplinary Research in Dialogue with Land) conference, Charles Sturt University (13–15 April 2016) with an accompanying exhibition at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery.

[5] Leard State Forest, New South Wales (coal); Pilliga State Forest, NSW (coal seam gas exploration)

[6] Whitelaw, M 2016, Workshop Notes: Thinking Landscape, 16 September 2016, University of Wollongong Australia.

[7] Organ, MK & Speechley, C 1997, ‘Illawarra Aborigines’, in Hagan, JS and Wells, A (eds), A History of Wollongong, University of Wollongong Press, Wollongong, pp7-22.

[8] The Sydney Mail, 1906, THE BEAUTIFUL ILLAWARRA AND Shoalhaven BY F.J.B, Wed 21 November, p1292, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/163681659

[9] Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, 2016, http://www.gnb.nsw.gov.au/place_naming/placename_search/extract?id=MackFxsyGH

[10] Geological sites of New South Wales, 2016, Illawarra Coal Measures, http://www.geomaps.com.au/scripts/illawarracoal.php

[11] Erwin, D 2006, Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.

[12] Ceballos, G, Ehrlich, P, Barnosky, A, García, A, Pringle, R & Palmer, T 2015, ‘Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction’, Science Advances, vol.1, no.5, e1400253,
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253

____________________________________________________________________________ Boscacci, L 2016, ‘Ways to Cross Country: On “Thinking Landscape”’, Material Ecologies Research Network/ MECO blog, 30 October 2016, http://www.uowblogs.com/meco/2016/10/30/ways-to-cross-country-a-response-to-thinking-landscape/ _____________________________________________________________________________

MECO360: Head in the Clouds

Joshua Lobb | 1 October 2016

 

Escher, 'Rind', 1995. Wood engraving and woodcut in black, brown, blue-grey and grey, printed from 4 blocks.

M.C. Escher, ‘Rind’, 1995. Wood engraving and woodcut.

 

“You cannot stand on sky, but you can be in it as you can in water or in sleep…

this will do, this walking with only one’s head in the clouds”

(Treddinick 2007, 137)

I say to people: “I’m writing stories about birds.” But that’s not true. Birds were my starting point. The first birds I noticed were three black cockatoos, floating overhead, as I walked over the highway bridge near North Wollongong station. I was a jumble of worries; the cars clanged and hissed passed me. I could see the schoolkids on the platform below: plucking and pinching, smickering and shoving. Car doors slamming in the carpark. Underneath the train tracks a stormwater drain, tentacled with graffiti, the remnant of a creek. As I plodded, the cockatoos wafted down, hovered at eye level. I watched them, suspended in the air. Then, one by one, the cockatoos dropped lower, under the highway bridge and away. They were bewitching, unfathomable, oblivious. They were in another world.

Freya Mathews writes that engaging with other animals “enables us to imagine how odd or arbitrary our human priorities might appear from a non-human perspective” (Mathews 1997, 5). Birds, in particular, offer a different point of view. Julia Martin observes: “Birds move. They fly. The bird’s eye sees the world from above as well as from below” (Martin 2007, 74). Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching different birds—lyrebirds, seagulls, kookaburras, magpies, tawny frogmouths, sparrows, rosellas, budgies—trying to comprehend their Umwelt: “the radically diverse sensory worlds that [birds] exist within” (Blas 2012, 33). But I’m always watching, it’s always my imagination with them in the clouds: as I try to write the birds’ stories, I’m only ever telling my own. As Linda Alcoff puts it, “representation is never a simple act of discovery” (Alcoff 1991-1992, 10).

In my writing, I’ve noticed two ways “the bird and its ecosystem are influenced by [my] very presence” (Mattern 2016, np). The first is a tendency to anatomise: to classify different species, plumages or behaviours. I read books called Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird or articles like “Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows”. I scan the internet for images and recordings, my head in a different kind of cloud. The stories become a kind of guide book, as if they’re presenting “color schematic diagrams with ‘field marks’, or small lines, that highlighted the species’ most salient features” (Mattern 2016, np). They’re specimens: pictures on the page; captives in a cage. The second tendency is more damaging: the birds are not-really-birds; they’ve become analogies for human experience. Writing about a bird, as Thomas Nagel might say, is not writing like a bird. Anne Collett reflects that even when birds appear ‘other’—what she calls “the sheer quality of the fantastic and the alien”—they also “lend…[themselves] so readily to anthropomorphism” (Collett 2007, vi). My birds become “tropes of human concern” (Desblanche 2007, 180). Magpies swooping become synonymous with workplace bullying; chickens pecking at the dirt become symbols of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The antiphonal call-and-response of the whipbird—two birds making one sound, the division indiscernible and almost inconceivable to human ears—becomes an anthem to romantic human love. I feel like I’m doing what nineteenth-century traders in New Guinea did to birds of paradise: after killing them, they stuffed the creatures and cut off their legs for easier transportation. When the ornithologists examined the specimens, they developed an elaborate theory about a species that was always in flight: feeding, sleeping, copulating and laying eggs in an elegant dance above the ocean (Goldsmith 1825, 487). As Susan McHugh argues, “the animal’s sacrifice (i.e., its real and representational consumption) supports the human.” (McHugh 2009, 489)

Sometimes though, if I’m in the right location, a bird might swoop down and carry me away. In his mimicry of a human’s call, a lyrebird might also tell me something of his own experience. Planning a story this week about a koel—the four-in-the-morning, passive-aggressive whoop universally loathed by Illawarrans—I’ve been trying to listen to the call on his own terms, distinct from the irritation of the human ear. In really listening to the Koel, I’ve almost-discovered the beauty of it. It’s not easy. Perhaps I should let him sing his song without me eavesdropping.

Then again, perhaps it’s necessary for me to keep listening; necessary, even, to try and respond to his call. In postcolonial or feminist writing, there’s often an argument that if we don’t provide a space for the ‘other’ in mainstream discourse to be seen or heard, even if only in a representation, we’re erasing them completely. It’s could be seen as a kind of extinction. Talking about the domestication of Australian native animals, Mike Archer comments that:

            one of the ironies is that some of the most suitable ones…are actually endangered,             and while we watch our endangered animals declining to the point of extinction,                 some of them vanishing forever, thinking that we’re doing the best we can by                     leaving them in the wild and leaving them alone, in fact by not valuing them, by not             getting closer to them, by not integrating them into our lives and ours into theirs,                 the indifference that we have in effect to their wellbeing, leads to many of them                   being lost (quoted in Franklin 2007, 121-122).

Maybe it’s all right to tell stories about birds—rosellas, kookaburras, Gould’s petrels—even if their flight is only being observed through human binoculars.

I say: “I’m writing about humans. I’m trying to write about birds.”

 

Escher, 'Two Birds (No. 18)', 1938. India ink, pencil, watercolor.

M.C. Escher, ‘Two Birds (No. 18)’, 1938. India ink, pencil, watercolour.

 

Reference List:

Alcoff, L. 1991-1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others” Cultural Critique 20 (Winter), 5-32

Blas, Z. 2012. “Virus, Viral” Women’s Studies Quarterly. 40:1/2, Spring/Summer, 29-39.

Collett, A. 2007. “Editorial” Kunapipi. 39:2, vi-vii.

Franklin, A. 2007. “Relating to Birds in Postcolonial Australia”. Kunapipi. 39:2, 102-125.

Goldsmith, O. 1825. A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, Volume 3. William Charlton Wright, London.

Kaplan, G. Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. CSIRO Publishing/UNSW Press, Collingwood.

Livia, A. 1996. “Daring to Presume” in Wilkinson, S.; Kitzinger, C. (eds) 1996. Representing the Other: A Feminism and Psychology Reader. Sage Publications, London. 33-42

Mathews, F. 1997. “Living with Animals”. Animal Issues. 1:1, 4-16.

Martin, J. 2007. “A Poem about a Bird Can Be a Picture of the World: Reading ‘Heron’s Place’ by Jeremy Cronin” Kunapipi. 39:2, 65-75.

Nagel, T. 1974. “What is it like to be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review. 83:4. October. 435-450.Treddenick, M. 2007.

Tredinnick, M. 2007. “Days in the Plateau” Kunapipi. 39:2, 135-141.

von Uexküll, J. 1957 [1934] “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” in Instinctive Behaviour: The Development of a Modern Concept. Ed. C. H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press, 5-80.

Weir, A. A. S., Chappell, J., Kacelnik, A. 2002. “Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows” Science. 297:5583, 981.

Image References:

Escher, M. C. 1955. Rind. Wood engraving and woodcut in black, brown, blue-grey and grey, printed from 4 blocks. http://www.mcescher.com/Gallery/gallery-recogn.htm

Escher, M. C. 1938. Two Birds (No. 18). India ink, pencil, watercolor. http://www.mcescher.com/gallery/switzerland-belgium/no-18-two-birds/

 

MECO360: The Day I Got Us Lost

Kim Williams | 1 September 2016

Camp 7: waterfall, tributary of Drysdale River near junction with Charnley River, Gardner Plateau, Caroline Ranges, Central Kimberley, July 2014.

Map reading: 16˚18’ S, 125˚ 51’ E

Kim Williams (with Jo Stirling) Central Kimberley map 2015

Kim Williams (with Jo Stirling) Central Kimberley map 2015

 

It’s the eighth day of our 12 day walk in the remote heart of the Kimberley. We’re on the edge of the 200,000 hectare Mt Elizabeth Station. Peter Lacy, the Aboriginal owner, had driven us a few hours along a rough track and dropped us off a week earlier, somewhere on the Drysdale River. Since then, we’ve been following watercourses in rugged stone country, navigating with maps and compasses. The last few days we’ve been heading along a magnificent steep gorge, absorbing the rock art, plants, animals and pristine waterways.

There are no walking tracks out here. Distance in kilometres is irrelevant. Sometimes it can take an hour to get through fifty metres of thick pandanus. It is so remote that I can imagine that we are the first white people to have walked in this place. There’s plenty of evidence of the Aboriginal presence here over millennia – stunning images of Wandjina and animals painted on rock.

We’re camped on top of a waterfall, with a giant rockpool below. Today is a ‘rest’ day – we’ll be staying two nights at the waterfall, so we don’t have to lug our heavy packs today. We’re doing a day walk up the Charnley River hoping to find more rock art, then walking in a circuit along another side creek and back to camp a different way. I’m feeling affected by the heat today.

I should have rested back at camp and read a book or done some drawing, but I don’t want to miss an adventure.

After perhaps 3km of walking upstream, we reach the side creek. Rox and Naja decide to turn back, to have a restful afternoon at camp. The other four of us press on up the side creek until we find a substantial rock art site. I’m not feeling well, so I decide to head back to camp after lunch. Mailin joins me, while Lou and Hannah keep going.

Notice the landforms around you – don’t always rely on others in the group.

As Mailin and I head back down the Charnley, we stumble upon Rox and Naja, sitting in a clearing near the river, distressed and very relieved to see us. They had gotten lost on the way back to camp, so they decided to rest to gather their wits. I have a map and compass – they relax in the knowledge that we’ll find ‘home’ together. It’s fairly straightforward: head downstream (north-west), turn northwards at the junction of the Charnley and the gorge, then a thirty minute walk to our campsite at the waterfall.

When you return the way you came, things always look very different from the opposite direction.

I march ahead confidently with the map and compass, the other three chatting happily behind me. It’s probably around 2pm. We walk alongside the mirrored water of the river. The reflection is so brilliant it’s hard to tell which way the river is flowing. Checking the map occasionally, I convince myself of our location.

When navigating by map, you are not always where you think you are. The physical features are far more nuanced and complex than the lines on a map.

We follow the Charnley for what seems to me an unusually long time. We’re seduced by the beauty of the river, which is now as straight as a highway. I don’t remember this. Slowly my anxiety grows and I begin looking for our footprints heading outwards from earlier in the day; I’m sure our turnoff to the gorge must be just ahead. It should be simple. The others are oblivious to my worry. They feel safe in my hands. There are no more footprints and the sun is getting low. I express my doubts, but the other three are in a happy bubble and are not ready to worry with me.

A combination of modest navigation skills and instinct can be confusing.

When I finally announce that we really are lost, the others quickly sober. We make a decision to go on for another half hour downstream, then turn back to try and find our hidden gorge in the opposite direction. Fortunately no-one panics: we have a couple of chocolate bars, there’s loads of fresh water, and Lou will eventually realise we’re lost and come looking for us. At worst, she’ll set off the emergency beacon and a rescue helicopter might arrive in a day or two. I’m comforted by the collective optimism.

When taking a map reading, why are the north-south lines called eastings, and the east-west lines called northings?

After half an hour, we agree to turn around and head back upstream. Now we are all on high alert, our senses vibrating with fear. I am looking at every contour on the map, constantly stopping and cross-checking with the compass. The sun behind us is getting low and we’re hot and tired. We’re all imagining a cold night huddled together with only a map for a blanket, but we keep walking.

When the wind is blowing from the south it is called a southerly, but when we’re walking from the south we’re heading north.

At length, I spot a break in the rocks to our left (north). I’ve abandoned map-reading and am now operating on instinct and hope. The others follow me across the braided streams, a tangle of watercourses and rock formations that my all-too-human brain had not fully absorbed earlier in the day. What was simple in my mind is complex on the ground. Eventually the terrain becomes familiar, my hopes quietly rise, and fifteen minutes later we are hugging and whooping at the edge of our giant rock pool. Home. There are Lou and Hannah, standing at the top of the waterfall waiting for us. Throwing our filthy clothes aside, we all dive into the water. Even the freshwater crocodiles are happy to see us.

Kimberley slice

1 cup of rolled oats, toasted over the campfire with the seeds of 3 cardamom pods

100gm block of chocolate, any kind

A good dollop of tahini

½ to ¾ cup almonds, placed in a ziplock bag and pounded with a rock into small pieces

Handful of sultanas or raisins, chopped with a pocket knife

Melt the chocolate in a pan over the campfire. Stir in tahini, toasted oats, cardamom seeds, nuts and sultanas. Using a lunch box lid or equivalent, spread the mixture into something resembling a large family size block of chocolate. Place on a small rock in a backwater of a river so that it doesn’t float away; allow it to cool and set. Enjoy with good company.

Thanks to Jo Stirling for graphic support.

 

MECO360: Finding a new way of looking?

Eva Hampel | 1 August 2016

Illawarra, NSW, April 21, 2015. Wild, wild storm.

There was pure power in that ocean, and I wanted it on film, but I could barely keep my feet or even see the water below me, for the gusting wind and the rain driving in my eyes. Most of all I had no wish to be closer to that churning, heaving water at the base of the cliff on which I rather precariously stood. Soaked and wind-blasted, I gave up and ran for the car.

Eva Hampel 2015, 'Untitled (Ocean I)', digital image

Eva Hampel 2015, ‘Untitled (Ocean I)’, digital image

Eva Hampel 2015, 'Untitled (Ocean II)', digital image

Eva Hampel 2015, ‘Untitled (Ocean II)’, digital image


Six useable photographs. The images form works in themselves, but also—in the natural sciences sense of the concept—‘fieldwork’. They will provide raw data for future works, in drawn and painted forms. As a series, the works will investigate the matter, energy, liveliness and agency of that element: an ocean boiled by storm.

But how to communicate the sense of scale? The water surface looks frothed and wind-whipped, so there is a sense of windstrength, but it is very hard to get a sense of the size of those mountainous waves. It was a wild storm: weather records from the Bureau of Meteorology show wind gusts up to 135km/hr in the Illawarra and Newcastle regions (recorded at Wattamolla and Nobbys Signal Station), and wave heights up to 14.9m recorded at a buoy off Sydney Harbour. This was, according to the bureau, the most severe East Coast Low to affect the New South Wales coast since at least June 2007. The State Emergency Service reported the largest response operation in the history of the service. On the beaches below where I took these photographs, storm cut took out all the spinifex dune, right back to the banksias at the foot of the road embankment. The ocean roared, for days, but how to communicate that level of energy in a still image? In eliminating all information other than the matter of the ocean and its energy itself, scale and grounded reference, which might have provided an indication of power, is lost. Does this pared down image then suggest sufficient energy to allow that level of power to be appreciated? This is a question I have not yet answered, but I am continuing to experiment with approaching the construction of these images through new materialist thinking. In 1996, Cheryl Glotfelty, founder of the Ecocriticism movement, wrote the following:

If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the Earth’s life support systems were under stress. Indeed you might never know that there was an Earth at all. (Glotfelty and Fromm, 1996, p.xvi)

How far have we as Western artists moved since Glotfelty made this statement? Climate change, with its emphatic social relevance, could perhaps be considered the major trigger for a heightened contemporary focus on the natural world, but many qualities of the networked world and its histories, human and non-human, are being explored, with a realisation of the sixth mass extinction event, plastics in the oceans, ocean acidification, toxic chemistry, ecosystem simplification, and inequality in the distribution of harm amongst the urgent planetary issues being addressed.

Theorising in the new materialist and realist philosophical paradigms, influenced by theorists and philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Isabel Stengers, Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, William Connolly and others, has shifted the field of enquiry to a focus on objects, agential matter, contingency, Morton’s concept of hyper-objects and Stengers’ of wonder, and ‘networks or assemblages across which agency and even consciousness are distributed’ (Joselit, Lambert-Beatty, and Foster, 2016, p.3). These strands of thinking fundamentally challenge the centrality of subjectivity, and perhaps even more fundamentally, shift thinking ‘from epistemology, in all of its relation to critique, to ontology, where the being of things is valued alongside that of persons’ (Joselit, Lambert-Beatty and Foster, 2016, p.3). Fundamentally non-anthropocentric, these new modes of thinking have implications for the sciences, sociology, ethics, even economics, as well as for art, and constitute effectively a sorely needed paradigm shift in the history of modern Western thinking’s conceptual relations to the natural world. My hope is that this shift in thinking will effect real political change on a global scale before it is too late to contain climatic and other environmental impacts. Perhaps this is optimistic.

Nonetheless, I find hope in this shift in thinking, and in the potential for transformation that resides in the work of prominent artists: such as Olafur Eliasson, who engages with and also deconstructs the romantic tradition, bringing the natural world into sharp focus; Subhankar Banerjee, who raises his voice strongly for the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic as well as the biota; and of Ken and Julia Yonetani, who poetically address contemporary issues local to their homelands of Australia and Japan. And there are many others.

The focus has shifted in some of this work to a sense of our inextricable immersion in the world, a sense of entanglement with networks, or in Tim Ingold’s preferred representation ‘meshworks’ of the human and nonhuman. This is an approach that resonates strongly with the theorising of ecology, now championed in art and cultural theory by Timothy Morton, Tim Ingold and others. With the material turn, thinking is moving from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint of command over nature towards what political scientist William E. Connolly suggests is

an ethic of cultivation grounded in care for this world….. a care derived not from a higher source or a transcendental subject….. but through a positive ethos and practices of cultivation… giving… some priority to the human estate, but… by emphasising our manifold entanglements with nonhuman processes (Connolly, 2012, p.399).

Conveying a sense of some of these nonhuman processes is what I am seeking to do in my ocean images. I think it is fair to find hope in the shift Connolly describes, and in the power of artists to aid this shift after almost half a century of environmental activism that has barely dented the machinery of capitalism. Donna Haraway is surely right to use the term ‘Capitalocene’ as an alternative to the more distant and neutral ‘Anthropocene’, and I rather favour the concept of ‘Anthropo-narcissism’ (Cohen 2012) to express the Western world’s collective hubris. But I will continue to find hope where I can.

References:

Cohen, T., Ed. (2012). Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change. Critical Climate Change. Ann Arbor, USA, MPublishing – University of Michigan Library

Connolly, W. E. (2012), “The ‘New Materialism’ and the Fragility of Things”, Millenium – Journal of International Studies 41(3): 399-412.

Glotfelty, C. and Fromm, H. (1996), The Ecocritcism Reader : Landmarks In Literary Ecology, University of Georgia Press, Athens and London

Joselit, D. Lambert-Beatty, C. Foster, H. (2016). A Questionnaire on Materialisms. October Winter 2016 (155): 3-110.

MECO360: Expiration Aesthetics

Etienne Deleflie | 1 July 2016

If it is possible to characterise the response of the humanities to the Anthropocene, I would suggest that there is a central tension that arises when the impulse to adopt non-dualist abstractions is met with the requisite challenge to human agency. Simply put: in exploring the possibility that there is no clear line between self and world we seek to redress our relation to the world, but we must subsequently also question the degree of control we hold over that world. We move towards a non-dualist stance to ‘act’ in the face of the Anthropocene, but in so doing we necessarily question whether we can genuinely ‘act’ at all!

The species-anxiety caused by humanity’s potentially dismal future is an expression of the belief in a genuine, independent human agency. We feel we are responsible and we feel we should act to change that potential future. If this human agency is not genuinely possible, as is suggested by certain monist ontologies, then the anxiety has no cause.

Expiring Object No. 1 is a work that seeks to give expression to a dismal future that is free of anxiety. A battery’s energy reserve will expire, and the flashing LED light will cease to flash at some point in the future. Its dismal future valorises its present beauty. The work thus asks: freed of anxiety, can the Anthropocene valorise the present beauty of the anthropos?

The impulse to explore non-dualist ontologies is evident amongst New Materialist philosophies. But those who cannot subscribe to the notion that everything must have a material existence, still challenge historical and contemporary dualisms, from Descartes to the more modern variants. I propose that the common practice of re-labeling the ‘anthropocene’ is precisely grounded in a desire to challenge these dualisms. Whether it be the Capitalocene (Moore, 2015), Chthulucene (Haraway, 2015), Entropocene (Stiegler, 2015), or Negentropocene (Stiegler, 2015), each new conception seeks to identify the line before or after which a human agency might be possible. As suggested by Wark (2016) this re-labeling might even be understood as a ‘pathology’ of the Anthropocene.

The tension between the inclination to conceive of a deeply interconnected world and the reduction in human agency thus implied, can be seen in the work of Haraway. Consider the passage in which Haraway (2014) argues for a broad understanding of the symbiotic nature of the human relation to the world:

We are all lichens now, we have never been individuals, from anatomical, physiological, evolutionary, developmental, philosophic, economic, I don’t care what perspective, we are all lichens now.

Now consider the paragraph, in which Haraway’s (2015) call-to-arms re-affirms the importance of an assumed human (or ‘mammalian’) agency:

Bacteria and fungi abound to give us metaphors; but, metaphors aside (good luck with that!), we have a mammalian job to do, with our biotic and abiotic sym-poietic collaborators, co-laborers. We need to make kin sym-chthonically, sym-poetically. Who and whatever we are, we need to make-with—become-with, compose-with—the earth-bound (thanks for that term, Bruno Latour-in-anglophone-mode).

On the one hand, there is the insistence that humans cannot be conceived as distinctly separate on any level. On the other hand a distinctly separate agency is assumed that would allow us to execute our ‘mammalian job’ (mammals are largely defined by the presence of a neocortex) with our ‘collaborators’ / ‘co-laborers’, which are now articulated as collaborative, not constitutive. So where is that line? Is it between the material and the ideal (surely not!)? Where is the line, on one side of which to be human means to be a biological / abiotic / (whatever else) complex, and on the other side of which an agency remains possible?

I understand this tension, between the articulation of humanity’s un-separatedness from ‘other’, and the tenacious subscription to the possibility of a separate agency, to be at the core of the humanities’ response to the Anthropocene.

Expiring Object No.1 is an ‘art-object’ whose worth is limited to the life-span of its embedded energy source. To live with this object means to wait for it to die: a matter of months or years. Every flash of its light is both a celebration of its finite energy source and a movement closer to its expiration.

The form and material constitution of the cube is partly inspired by 20th century American minimalism. Its material simplicity is complicated by the embedded electronic device: a flashing LED light and associated circuitry designed to do nothing other than drain the embedded battery. Once the battery has drained, Expiring Object No.1 ceases to function in its designated form and becomes disposable. Its disposability is dictated by its access to energy, not to its solid material presence; now wasted.

 

Etienne Deleflie 'Expiration Aesthetics' 2015-2016

Etienne Deleflie ‘Expiring Object No. 1’ 2015-2016

Expiring Object No.1 has now been active for over 8 months. It lives in my dining room. Its presence is often forgotten. When there is little or no ambient light in the room it provides a dramatic ticking glow. It is somewhat like a ticking time bomb whose subject is not the event at the end of the ticking, but the anticipation of that event. Its expiration is anticipated to occur at some point next year.

REFERENCES

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble!”. Transcript of presentation (https://vimeo.com/97663518 , 2014). Accessed 1 July 2016. http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165 www.environmentalhumanities.org

Moore, Jason W. Capitalism In The Web Of Life. Print. Verso, 2015.

Stiegler, Bernard, (trans. Ross, D). “Escaping the Anthropocene”. 2015. Accessed 1 July 2016. http://www.academia.edu/12692287/Bernard_Stiegler_Escaping_the_Anthropocene_2015_

Wark, McKenzie. “Make Kith Not Kin!”. Public Seminar. N.p., 2016. Accessed 1 July 2016. http://www.publicseminar.org/2016/06/kith/

MECO360: Hope remains while the company is true…

Agnieszka Golda | 1 June 2016

ForEverything that is1

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, “For Everything That Is,” 2016, installation detail, ink on canvas.

The sound of a familiar voice directs my attention towards my favourite movie. The opening narration to the cinematic rendition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings told by the elven Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien:

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost…

surely strikes a chord in all those particularly sensitive to climate change and shifts in ecological conditions. It’s uncanny how Galadriel’s poetic expression of lament evokes Paul Crutzen’s important remarks: “The world has changed too much… we are in the Anthropocene.” While Tolkien’s fantastical Middle-earth exposes the devastating impact of industrialised modes on nature, the geologic concept of the Anthropocene warns of an approaching climate tipping point. Lets hope, that it becomes an affective device, as the Last March of the Ents (urged by the most unlikely creatures imaginable, the Hobbits) for shifting beyond a state of human centred perspective.

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, "For Everything that Is," 2016, installation detail, ink on canvas.

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, “For Everything that Is,” 2016, installation detail, ink on canvas.

I’m yet again captivated by the view outside my studio window. There, in close proximity, stands an ancient mountain called Mt Keira. Lush and green, its peak surrounded by a crown of puffy white clouds, serves as a timely reminder of forests’ extraordinary capacity to influence local weather and stabilise regional climate. This remarkable ability to manage water has earned forests the prestigious status of being the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. In fact, while more than two thirds of all terrestrial species survival directly hinges on forests, the ecological resilience of forests depends strongly on their biodiversity. Sadly, the long-term, cumulative effects of anthropogenic impacts on forests have brought about their colossal disappearance and therefore equally irreversible loss of the diversity of life on Earth.

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, "For Everything that Is," 2016, installation detail, found wood, amethyst crystals on found concrete.

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, “For Everything that Is,” 2016, installation detail, found wood, amethyst crystals on found concrete.

My recent collaborative projects are driven by a strong interest in deep ecology, mindfulness and unearthing ecocentric strategies for responding to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. This ecological crisis raises important questions for artists: how can artistic actions and imagination, bolster and safeguard Earth’s energies? Even though, portrayals of diminishing ecosystems give rise to feelings of dread, collaborations often instigate unforeseen alliances and resistances that can instill feelings of hope – a desire for change in a particular place. As Galadriel reminds us: Yet hope remains while the company is true.

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, "For Everything that Is," 2016, installation detail, found wood and amethyst crystals.

Agnieszka Golda and Martin Johnson, “For Everything that Is,” 2016, installation detail, found wood and amethyst crystals.

MECO360: Guangzhou Delta Haiku

Lucas Ihlein | 9 May 2016

I’m writing this contribution to the MECO360 shortly after returning from the southern Chinese megacity of Guangzhou. I’ve been working on a cultural exchange project sponsored by 4A Centre for Contemporary Art (Sydney) and Observation Society (Guangzhou).

Sydney and Guangzhou are sister cities. Did you know that? Well, 2016 is the 30th anniversary of this siblinghood, and to celebrate I was invited to go and and embody the relationship by hanging out with Guangzhou/Hong Kong artist Trevor Yeung.

We spent several days together. For me, there was a process of geographical adjustment, as the view from my window radically shifted – from this (where I live in Bulli, north of Wollongong):

Tall gum trees on old
Asbestos dump near the sea
Hide the horizon

view from bulli window

…to this (in the Guangzhou district of Haizhu):

Vertical City:
Forty-sixth floor horizon,
Bright blue roofs below.

guangzhou view from hotel room

After I posted this photo of Guangzhou on my blog, I noticed a dark line surrounded by trees curving through the city. A creek!

In the following days, Trevor and I – together with our trusty local guide Hanting – went on some meandering walks around Guangzhou’s waterways. We walked as a way of getting to know Guangzhou, and each other. Sometimes when we tried to follow the creek we were blocked by busy roads or construction.

Street water flows;
Overflow pipe drains;
River meets rubble.

small river linking pearl river

Blockages like this forced us to make detours into the small back streets adjacent to the creek, where we discovered odd couplings.

Stone elephant’s leg
Tethered to folding bike —
Bike tethered to elephant.

elephant bike tether

The waterways are habitat and transport and sustenance and midden to humans and animals and plants.

Tadpoles in dead boat.
Mosquitoes bite her ankles.
Sofa in the drink.

guangzhou waterways

Wherever you are in Guangzhou – which comprises a network of cities that have all grown so large they have joined up into one of the world’s biggest “mega-cities” – you’re never far from water.

In Guangzhou I began to be aware of the complex water flows that comprise the Pearl River Delta upon which this place is built. I didn’t realise it until much later, but as we wandered around, my eyes and my camera were seeking out delta-like patterns everywhere.

Seen from space: Branching
and dividing. Seen from earth:
Branching and dividing.

pearl river delta satellite
tree roots

By definition, the land within a delta is very low lying – whatever is above the waterline is formed by the deposition of silt as the river makes its way to the sea. So this makes the Pearl River Delta region – and the 25 million people that live there – especially vulnerable to the sea level rising from climate change.

Well, I looked it up, and this is what I found. Of all the cities in the entire world, Guangzhou is listed at number one. Guangzhou is THE single city most likely to suffer damage due to sea level rises:

In terms of the overall cost of damage, the cities at the greatest risk are: 1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka. The top four cities alone account for 43% of the forecast total global losses.

So it looks like future of Guangzhou is going to be increasingly watery. How will it evolve? What kinds of decisions will the city make to survive over the next couple of hundred years? What does survival even mean?

Habitat, transport,
Sustenance, trash disposal:
Everyday life.

What do people who live here think about all this?

I’ll be continuing to explore this phenomenon as I work towards a joint exhibition with Trevor Yeung at Observation Society in June 2016, and later at Gallery 4A in July.

MECO360: Between Expansion and Collapse

Madeleine Kelly | 4 April 2016

In the mid seventies, biologists Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock described the earth as ‘autopoietic Gaia’, a living system, a body analogous to our own, composed of interdependent symbiotic relationships. ‘We are walking communities …Ten percent or more of our body weight is bacterial [in its evolutionary origins], and it’s just foolish to ignore that’, Margulis stated (Mann 1991, 378). So, to explore these relations, my paintings sometimes depict things as part of flow charts or systems, but just as natural systems are disrupted by culture, these are fictional orders that disrupt accepted orders.

Madeleine Kelly Man’s Place In the World 2008 Oil on polyester 90 x 115cm

Madeleine Kelly Man’s Place In the World 2008 Oil on polyester 90 x 115cm

The world surrounds us with life-sustaining systems, including solar energy and fossil fuels. The fossil fuels were developed during the carboniferous period from plants like these ancient club mosses. Their burning relentlessly contributes to greenhouse warming. Petrol is time.

Madeleine Kelly Ground Control 2004 128 x 193 cm, oil on polyester

Madeleine Kelly Ground Control 2004 128 x 193 cm, oil on polyester

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The second law, also known as the entropy law, states that in any closed system, when energy and matter are used there is an increase in entropy, or disorder. Increasing entropy can be thought of as the disorder in the universe, of disrupting Gaia’s balance, and of draining limited resources.

It is generally accepted that people in Australia want more than they have – bigger houses, more money and more time to spend it. But by historical or international standards we are very wealthy. Today’s average house is almost twice as big than houses were 50 years ago, with double the volume of bedrooms, bathrooms and cars. When I contemplate this situation, it is surreal. Everyday life requires we consciously behave as if unconscious of future ramifications. Economic growth dominates social policy and distracts attention from the need to redistribute wealth, halve consumption and burn less fossil fuels.

Madeleine Kelly The Electric Thinking House 2007 Oil on Polyester 200 x 148cm

Madeleine Kelly The Electric Thinking House 2007 Oil on Polyester 200 x 148cm

The Australian government, in maintaining infrastructure suited to burning fossil fuels, fails to acknowledge that degradation of the environment is a corollary to economic activity and energy consumption. Gross National Product is still regarded as the primary indication of our nation’s health. Production and consumption occur in a closed system that cycles forever, without limits.

Madeleine Kelly Melted Silver on the Sea 2007 Oil on polyester 100 x 140cm

Madeleine Kelly Melted Silver on the Sea 2007 Oil on polyester 100 x 140cm

Our own success as a species is still the biggest threat we face. Like melted silver on the sea, current environmental policy escapes us.

References:

Mann, Charles. ‘Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother’. Science. vol. 252. 1991: 378 – 381. Print.

http://www.madeleinekelly.com.au/

Godwits and planetary aesthetics

Susan Ballard | 1 March 2016

Godwit on the water's edge, Collingwood, Mohua. -40.677538, 172.684931

Bar-tailed Godwit on the water’s edge, Collingwood, Mohua, Aotearoa New Zealand. -40.677538, 172.684931

Godwits

New Zealand’s ‘2015 bird of the year’ is struggling. Travelling from Alaska to the Antipodes across the central Pacific Ocean, the Bar-tailed Godwit flies one of the longest known animal migration corridors on this planet. In New Zealand and Australia people greet the godwits on the beaches and estuaries. With calibrated ritual they count and measure. They walk around their twitchy gatherings, and wonder at their slender bodies that seem to contain so much energy. After resting in New Zealand, Australia and Fiji the birds return to Alaska to breed via the Yellow Sea. But each year less and less birds seem to arrive in these southern lands.

Bar-tailed Godwits are suffering because coastal mudflats are being drained for the massive expansion of sea walls in China and Korea. In these areas and across the earth mangroves have been reduced by fifty percent. The push and pull of blame and responsibility is ongoing. National borders don’t help. Alison Russell-French sums it up: “As global travellers, shorebirds need a global community of caring humans.” New Zealand goes begging to China for a small piece of land to be conserved, just enough for the godwits to grab some polychaeta on their 11,000 kilometre journey north. And agreements are signed. To clean the shoreline of the Yellow Sea and return just a portion of it to a soft shore of wetlands we need machines. These include huge diesel guzzlers that move and level the earth, and other machines that use biological and chemical materials to remove heavy metals and purify the soil and water.

Planetary Aesthetics

The umwelt of the godwit covers an 11,000 kilometre radius, it is more than I can imagine but I cannot choose to ignore it. The story is one of interspecies and machinic relationships propelled by humans. Industrial machines might have triggered the great acceleration of habitat loss but other machines help us understand the fate of the godwits today. These include the networked satellites that in 2007 proved the godwits’ extraordinary endurance when nine birds were tagged in New Zealand and tracked to the Yellow Sea by satellites orbiting above them. The same year another team of godwits left the coastal wetlands of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska carrying solar powered satellite tracking devices on their journey south. I wondered if the added weight of their satellite units meant they had to rest longer, or fly slower, or if other travelling birds gave them a wide berth. It is just one small narrative among many.

Critical art histories seem a long way from the story telling of godwits. Projects like Trudy Lane’s House of Wonder, insist that we cannot separate these narratives of the birds from our art histories. Lane comments that the House of Wonder is not just a “walk through deep time” but an encouragement to “look again at overlooked or forgotten aspects of our cultural views and perspectives of nature.”

Art history is always about looking, looking is about an ethico-aesthetics of thought, and thinking alongside godwits is about activating planetary aesthetics. Indian critic Gayatri Spivak suggests that to “planet-think” and “planet-feel” means we can no longer divide the world into self and other, subject and object, human and non-human; she writes that “there is no choosing between cultures.”

To take Spivak’s planetarities seriously means working within a practice of art history that includes birds, humans and machines; they all contribute to art’s histories. It also means shifting the boundaries of our disciplines in order to embrace a relational ethics—which many others have called an ethico-aesthetics—where my wanderings on a beach 11,000 kilometres from anywhere are informed by a broader range of bodies and things than at first appear. The godwit is just one small body travelling the earth system and it is best we pay attention.

MECO360: Diffracted Encountering

Louise Boscacci | 29 January 2016

Not long after the first MECO network research event close to seven months ago, a short essay, Spinoza was a lens maker, coalesced in my thoughts in response to a call out for collective musings on ‘material and ecological thinking’. At the network gathering on the Shoalhaven River at Riversdale, I had undertaken some night photography sessions in the full moon light. I offer the essay here, and a companion image from the nocturnal photoplay series What does a dark–turning–solar–moon–wodi wodi–river–hand–eye–light–lens do? Consider them diffractions of a-bodied encountering.

boscacci_moonphotoplay_010715_

Louise Boscacci 2015. ‘What does a dark–turning–solar–moon–wodi wodi–river–hand–eye–light–lens do?’. Composite digital photographic series. (Click to enlarge).

Essay: Spinoza was a lens maker LouiseBoscacci_Spinoza_lens_maker_120915_240116-MECO

 

Diffracted encountering II

Working with insights from quantum field physics, Karen Barad convincingly unsettles and troubles the words material and immaterial, provoking us by proposing that imagining and thinking are material practices if mattered or made manifest and active in meaning by the ‘(im)material’ body. At the microphysical scale of the atom and the subatomic electron, the radical indeterminacy of matter, and even touch, is revealed.[i] (If touch is, on the one hand, electromagnetic repulsion, and on the other, intimacy, why have I spent so much of my energy as an artist-maker revalorizing the haptic sense in object encountering?). The quantum leap of the excited electron from a higher energy level to a lower one creates a photon of light. Light, another practice-favourite as illuminator and animator, affective ephemeros, photosynthetic collaborator in the supply of oxygen to breathing bodies I care about, behaves as both particle and wave in oscillating indeterminacy, nimbly eluding fences of language; it is best embraced, for now, as I must, in terms of Barad’s (im)material. Matter is not what it seems, and never has been. Even better, “nature deconstructs itself,” says Barad, because matter is not a discrete thing locatable in time or space; rather “space and time are matter’s agential performances”.[ii] Ontological indeterminacy, a radical openness and change (that changes with each iteration) are at the heart of matter if we take on the teachings of jumping electrons: matter is a matter of transmateriality.[iii]

Wombat&Cath_nightwalk_2015

Louise Boscacci 2015. ‘Wombat and Cath nightwalking’. Digital photograph.

“What spooky matter is this?” (Karen Barad 2014).

So what do I mean by the descriptor ‘immaterial’ when referring to transient forces and energies of affective encounters in attuned-to places and atmospheres? Perhaps, a better vocabulary of practice might be to articulate along the lines of the unmanifested, perceptible and palpable—the sensed and ‘felt’—yet ungraspable, in both haptic and cognitive senses. This is the corpo-real experience, as Bracha Ettinger reminds us, of a-bodied and virtual-transient affect.[iv] Fleeting electrical flashes of encountering that surprise and linger in their impingement are corpo-real and generative gifts in the intertwined feeling-forward, making, thinking, imagining, doing and undoing of processual art practice. From Barad, amongst the rich makings of her thinking, I find an opening of potential for the electron-infused mattered mammals we (if I may) artist-scholars are being-becoming: “the electric body—at all scales, atmosphere, subatomic, molecular, organismic—is a quantum phenomenon generating new imaginaries, new lines of research, new possibilities”.[v]

 

Endnotes

[i] Barad (2007, 2012)

[ii] Barad (2014)

[iii] Barad (2014, 2015).

[iv] Ettinger (2006); Massumi (2014). I am alluding to thesis-writing musings and questions to self.

[v] Barad (2015, p411).