MECO360: Finding a new way of looking?

Eva Hampel | 1 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

MECO360: Expiration Aesthetics

Etienne Deleflie | 1 July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Etienne Deleflie 'Expiration Aesthetics' 2015-2016

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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