The Material Ecologies (MECO) research network is a research network for critical and creative practices in the Environmental Humanities. It is a collective of scholars investigating entanglements across the social, cultural and political contexts of the Anthropocence. The network’s interdisciplinary focus is beyond the human: material intersections of the animal, the technological, the animate and inanimate, material and immaterial objects. Adopting an ecology of practice approach, MECO is a vehicle for transdisciplinary exchange, research generation, support and collaboration across intersecting theoretical, disciplinary, and methodological interests based in the broad fields of Contemporary Arts, Media and Humanities.
Anne Collett | 1 February 2017
In the break between sessions in 2016 I squeezed in an 18 day walk in the UK – 450km up and down the Pennines. I told my Romantics students who had enrolled for Victorians in the next session, that if I didn’t make it back in time for the first lecture, it was surely because I had disappeared into a bog. The Pennines are the ‘mountain’ chain that runs up the spine of England – starting level with Manchester and up to the Scottish border. The walk is usually done south to north (supposedly with back to the prevailing winds). It’s very very wet and about as wild as it gets in England – far far from the madding crowd – and I love it! The lonelier, the wilder, the boggier, the foggier, the more I like it. Of course the wet and cold and even falling into the bog is fun, only because I can look forward to a hot shower, a pint and a meal at the local pub, and a comfy bed at day’s end – no wild camping for me.
Most people are puzzled by my love affair with bogs (and sheep) – less puzzled by the sheep than the bogs; but I love bogs because they are so intractable, so uncivilizable – but they are being badly eroded by so much human and animal traffic (walkers, fell-runners, bikers, sheep, a few wild goats, rabbits…). They are also fascinating because the black peaty pools are a haven for a myriad of plant and mini-animal life, and they are beautiful because these pools are a shiny black mirror for the changing colours and shapes of sky and cloud, of wind ripple, mist and fog. And then I love the layering of history in bogs – it’s like poetry – so much cultural and natural change is recorded in the bog as it is in poetry. The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, famously speaks about writing poetry as a kind of digging, and many of his bog poems are written in a state of wonder and awe:
The ground itself is kind, black butter Melting and opening underfoot, Missing its last definition By millions of years. … Our pioneers keep striking Inwards and downwards, Every layer they strip Seems camped on before. The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage. The wet centre is bottomless. (from ‘Bogland’)
It is this sense of bottomlessness, a kind of infinite depth – cultural, historical, geological – that has me entranced. If you read some Heaney you’ll see what I mean; or P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (1965), the book upon which Heaney based many of his bog poems. The black and white photographs and the text that describes the discovered ‘bog people’ are strangely peaceful and disturbing – a kind of ‘terrible beauty’ (W.B. Yeats) is revealed:
An early spring day – 8 May, 1950. Evening was gathering over Tollund Fen in Bjaeldskov Dal. Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His face wore a gentle expression – the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.
The dead man who lay there was two thousand years old. (19)
But Glob is forced to reassess his interpretation of gentle rest, peace and silent prayer when a lump of peat is removed from beside the man’s head:
This disclosed a rope, made of two leather thongs twisted together, which encircled the neck in a noose drawn tight into the throat and coiled like a snake over the shoulder and down across the back. After this discovery the wrinkled forehead and set mouth seemed to take on a look of affliction. (20)*
Glob writes with wonderful honesty, making apparent the human tendency to make much of little, to fill in gaps of knowledge with imagination. His record of feeling projected upon the bog man, points to the dangers of poeticising and the importance of attempting to remain anchored to a material reality that is often treacherous ground. My recent ‘bog hopping’ across the Pennines cautioned me against too ready an assumption of surety and the need to constantly rethink, reassess, retune my relationship with a world of bog in which I was an interloper, a stranger in a strange world. What I believed to be firm ground often gave way beneath my weight. All systems of negotiation proved fallible, my bog-hopping confidence deflated by a misjudged step. The bog claimed its woman but I survived to tell the tale, a wetter and wiser woman. Now I truly understand the phrase ‘that sinking feeling’! (And my next walk? Long service leave beckons: 14 days along Offa’s Dike in Wales – I hope there’s lots of bog.)
*This is the description upon which Heaney based his poem, ‘The Tollund Man’.
P.V. Glob . The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. New York: New York Review of Books, 2004.
Seamus Heaney. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.
W.B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’ in Selected Poems. London: Pan Books, 1990.
The Material Ecologies Research Network gathers to kick off plans for 2017 at the Wollongong Botanic Garden with our second network picnic lunch en plein air.
New members joined MECO in 2016 from our diverse spread of collaborative research projects, partnered events and individual practices.
Come and meet old and new friends.
The Robert Woodward Mercury Fountain is a short walk from the Northfields Avenue pedestrian entrance to the gardens opposite the main UOW campus. SEE MAP:
Directions for travellers outside Wollongong
Driving: When driving from the north or south take the F6 Freeway and exit at the Keiraville exit then follow the signs to the Wollongong Botanic Garden.
Parking: Main car park is on Murphys Avenue, Keiraville; other possible parking in Northfields Avenue on the university campus side.
A circuit linking the Botanic Garden to the city, the beach, the University, Innovation Campus and Fairy Meadow. The service operates between 7am and 10pm from Monday to Friday. Every 10 minutes during peak (7am – 9pm & 3pm – 6pm) and every 20 minutes off-peak.
[Bare-nosed Wombat photograph and invitation design, top: Jo Law]
Jo Law | 1 December 2016
As we enter the final month of the year on the Gregorian calendar, we are officially entering the season of summer. Australia adopts the official metrological reckoning that divides the year into four seasons, which designates the first day of December as the beginning of the hottest 3 months of the year. Flame trees glow a brilliant crimson red against the backdrop of the escarpment shrouded with condensation. Sulphur-crested cockatoos, parrots and rosellas feast on the reddening flowers of the Australian Christmas bush. Their activities set into motion snow flurries of red-stars as the flowers drift down to the ground. The Bureau of Meteorology forecast a warmer and drier than usual summer for the East coast of Australia with temperatures reaching the mid to high 30s at the beginning of the month. Meanwhile, northern hemisphere temperate regions are preparing for their coldest 3 months.
On the twenty third day of the preceding month, Japan celebrated its Labor Thanksgiving day, a modern derivative of the older grain harvest festival, Niiname-sai. The United States observed Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of the same month. In Australia, the wheat harvest is well underway on the East Coast with a record-breaking forecast, in particular with canola finishing with a good season. At the University of Wollongong, teaching concluded for the academic year with final marks released, last meetings of the year conducted, the Graduate Exhibition opened and closed. It seems to me that in our calendar we have few opportunities to give thanks to the labour of the past year before being hurled into the hectic festive season.
This December as stone fruits reached the markets and the green grocers’ shelves, the Australian Coalition Government’s backpacker tax bill of 15% rate passed the Senate with the support of the Greens. Much of the labour on summer fruit and vegetable harvests in Australia rely on foreign backpackers and seasonal guest workers. Interestingly, it is said that the original purpose of the summer vacation in Normandy was to free up workforces to facilitate grape harvest. In Europe, the summer break remained largely a privilege until relatively recently. The hot weather would prompt the upper classes to relocate to their summer residences. Later, it became an appropriate season to visit resorts and spas in the pursuits of good health. In the mid-19th century, the middle classes (later followed by the working classes) gained enough resources to follow suits, vacating their urban residences in favour of the seasides. From mid-December onwards, Coledale Camping Reserve begins to be filled up with the same caravans, families, and clans. Some of these holiday makers proudly claim the number of summer they spent in Coledale can be measured in decades and bookings for the peak holiday season are made years in advance.
The hottest day of the month in the Wollongong region was Tuesday 13 December with the highest maximum of 38ºC and highest minimum of 22ºC the following day, both recorded at Bellambi AWS. The sun reached the southernmost declination of 23.5º on Wednesday 21 December 2016 at 10.44 UTC and went no further. On the Tropic of Capricorn, the sun was directly overhead. Regions south of the Antarctic Circle (66.5º south latitude) experienced 24 hour of daylight accompanied by the ‘midnight’ sun. It was the December solstice. The termite alates (the winged reproductive caste) left their nests in search of new beginnings. As we walked home from an afternoon swim, we made our way through swarms of tiny insects that had saturated the warm humid air.
Video Poem by Jo Law and Ali Jane Smith
Joanna Stirling | 1 November 2016
Jo Stirling,’The Modern Midden’ 2015, installation shot. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
The Modern Midden, a small part of the big story of waste (2015) is an immersive visual data story that engages with waste generation and disposal in Australia. The project questions a reliance on landfill as a final destination for waste disposal and this being the predominant and relied upon solution. Central to the project is the recording and instigation of participatory experiences that build upon existing data to establish new evidence in order to question our relationships with waste. This paper discusses how data visualisation can be a strategy for exploring pathways of collective change through information design by making visible the data evidence of waste generation in new ways. Participants are asked to collect, sort, and categorise refuse produced by households over a set duration. By making the data evidence of “waste” visible and physical as the byproduct of wasteful systems and behaviours, we can share and witness the new nature of our own creation: “a world of objects without depth that leave no trace in our memories, but leave a growing mountain of refuse.”  This case study asks: What happens when data, materials and actions become a collective and shared experience? How do these new layered stories become important to nature? How do data and nature converge through these collective and shared processes?
Thinking Landscape: Data, geography, arts, writing, patterns, collecting and interdisciplinarity
Seminar and Workshop, 16th September, 2016: http://www.uowblogs.com/meco/2016/08/29/thinking-landsca…erdisciplinarity/
With 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.
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. 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. ‘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/)., 
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:
- ‘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.
- ‘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’.
- ‘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? 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’. 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.  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”. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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
 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
 Ursula Biemann: http://www.geobodies.org/
World of Matter: http://www.worldofmatter.net/; Arns, I (ed.) 2015, World of Matter, Sternberg Press, Berlin.
 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.
 Leard State Forest, New South Wales (coal); Pilliga State Forest, NSW (coal seam gas exploration)
 Whitelaw, M 2016, Workshop Notes: Thinking Landscape, 16 September 2016, University of Wollongong Australia.
 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.
 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
 Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, 2016, http://www.gnb.nsw.gov.au/place_naming/placename_search/extract?id=MackFxsyGH
 Geological sites of New South Wales, 2016, Illawarra Coal Measures, http://www.geomaps.com.au/scripts/illawarracoal.php
 Erwin, D 2006, Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.
 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/ _____________________________________________________________________________
Joshua Lobb | 1 October 2016
“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.”
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  “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.
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/
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
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.
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.
MECO and Global Challenges Seminar and Workshop
16th September 8.00am- 3.00pm
From data to drawing to writing and collections of material culture, scholars and practitioners have long developed a suite of ways to think and imagine the landscapes and environments in which we, and those we share the earth with, live. This day-long event will bring together interdisciplinary scholars and practitioners to explore and experiment with ‘thinking landscape’.
Landscapes are complex environmental, cultural and social entities, and artists, scientists and others continue to seek means of thinking and representing landscapes that can engage with and celebrate landscapes’ multi-dimensionality. This has made for centuries of practices of writing and painting, land and earth art, as well as contemporary advances in digital and geo humanities that focus on the evolution of data visualisation and sonificiation practices. The creation of immersive landscape experiences has expanded from the reflective performance within the landscape or gallery spaces to generative and critical data aesthetics.
In an era where global environmental change and social injustices are framed as ‘wicked’ problems requiring interdisciplinary solutions, and in which ‘creative experiments’ are framed as offering potential solutions to the temporal and spatial challenges of apprehending the changing conditions of our landscapes, this symposium suggests it is necessary to ‘think’ the landscape again. Such expanded senses of experimentation redistribute the sites, spaces, practices and subjects of knowledge—whether that be through the tools of environmental science or cultural histories and heritage; they make space for hybrid research practices and collaborative efforts, as well as redistribute expertise making new spaces for seeing, hearing and accounting for others in the representations and imaginations of landscape that are produced.
‘Thinking Landscape’ features a workshop exploring a range of practices of engaging with data about landscape, including visualisation and sonification data, as well as talks by Mitchell Whitelaw (School of Art, ANU http://mtchl.net/) and Harriet Hawkins (Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, www.creativegeographies.org).
To book a place and to see the full schedule please visit the eventbrite page: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/thinking-landscape-data-geography-arts-and-interdisciplinarity-tickets-27370917150
MECO member Dr Lucas Ihlein is hosting this event in Sydney, on Thursday 11 August from 6.00PM – 7.30PM
Free – (Bookings).
Join us for an evening with this most ubiquitous of grains.
Building on his recent visit to a rice farming enterprise in Guangdong province, Lucas Ihlein hosts a conversation with artist Vic McEwan, recipient of the Arts NSW Regional Fellowship 2014-15 (NarranderaNSW), and rice farmer Tim Randall (Griffith NSW).
What social, environmental and economic factors affect rice farming communities in Australia and China today?
Several varieties of Randall Organic Rice will be sampled on the night!
This 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art public program is a co-production with the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA) and the Material Ecologies Research Network (MECO) at University of Wollongong.
Presented as part of Sea Pearl White Cloud 海珠白雲, an exhibition of new work by Lucas Ihlein and Trevor Yeung, produced by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in partnership with Observation Society, Gaunzghou, and supported by the City of Sydney.
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.
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.
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.