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/ _____________________________________________________________________________

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

MECO and Global Challenges Seminar and Workshop

16th September 8.00am- 3.00pm

Mitchell Whitelaw Climate Data Walk 2009

Mitchell Whitelaw Climate Data Walk 2009

 

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

For any other questions please get in touch with Su Ballard (sballard@uow.edu.au) or Harriet Hawkins (harriet.hawkins@rhul.ac.uk).