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


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.


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]


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]



[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).


the inaugural MECO PICNIC




From the Wollongong Botanic Garden website:

Succulent Collection #8
The diverse selection of succulents primarily from Africa and America provides a stunning backdrop for outdoor functions all year round in the clearing between the Dryland Mound and the Succulent Mound. A massed display of Mesembryanthemum makes a stunning presentation in spring and summer, with Aloes flowering profusely from June to August.

The MECO Lecture: Animal Factories and Anti-Duck-Shooting

In partnership with the FEMINIST RESEARCH NETWORK, MECO has invited Dr Yvette Watt to present a lecture on her current research, all welcome.

10 February 2016 10.15am     research hub, bldg 19, UOW

Yvette Watts "Duck Lake"

Yvette Watts “Duck Lake”

Animal Factories and Anti-Duck-Shooting: Negotiating Academia as an Activist Artist

Dr Yvette Watt

This paper will begin by giving an overview of a major art project that involved photographing large- scale industrial animal farms around Australia from publicly accessible vantage points. The images aimed to capture the ‘internment’ or ‘concentration’ camp style layout of these industrial farms, with the total absence of animals in the imagery serving to highlight the hidden and secretive nature of the unnatural and restricted environment endured by the animals housed inside the windowless sheds. The Animal Factories project, which received research funding through the University of Tasmania, pursued an ongoing interest in the role of art in communicating issues surrounding the ethics of human-animal relations. However, the intersection of art, activism and academia can provide challenges – a matter that will be addressed through a discussion of a project that I am currently working on, which involves staging a performance of Swan Lake at the opening of duck shooting season in Tasmania. While the two projects differ dramatically in their methodologies, both are concerned with visibility and invisibility; of the animals, of the farming/hunting practices, and of the projects’ profiles within the academy. The paper closes by speculating on whether it is possible for the “artivist” academic to resist the kind of institutional compliance that can deaden the creative response to animal suffering.

Yvette Watt  is a Lecturer in Fine Art at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania, where she also completed a MFA and a PhD. She is a committee member of Minding Animals Australia and Co-Director of the UTAS Faculty of the Arts Environment Research Group. Yvette’s art practice spans 30 years. She has held numerous solo exhibitions and has been the recipient of a number of grants and awards. Her work is held in numerous public and private collections including Parliament House, Canberra, Artbank and the Art Gallery of WA. Yvette has been actively involved in animal advocacy since the mid-1980s, including being a founder of Against Animal Cruelty Tasmania, and her artwork is heavily informed by her activism. She is a contributor to and co-editor (along with Carol Freeman and Elizabeth Leane) of the collection titled  Considering Animals: Contemporary Studies in Human-Animal Relations  (Ashgate, 2011). Other essays by Yvette include ‘Artists, Animals and Ethics’ in  Antennae  (2011, issue 19) and ‘Animal Factories: Exposing Sites of Capture’ in  Captured: The Animal Within Culture  (Palgrave McMillian, 2014, edited by Melissa Boyde).