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.
Tess Barber | August 2017
‘As glaciers melt, deltas flood, and we row our lifeboats down the middle of the River Anthropocene, it seems we need any valuable tool we can muster to negotiate the rising tide pushing in from the sea.’[i]
- There are no simple solutions.[ii]
- Experiment with methods to cool down, preferably those not reliant on cheap, consistent energy sources. Failing this, adapt to suit hot environments.
- Develop a range of communally useful skills.[iii]
- Personal skills are also a necessity; these may include swimming, being generally fit, or developing high immunity.
- Learn methods for finding water.[iv] Or, again, consider adapting to not need water…
- Adapt. Adaptation is key and can be applied to all situations.[v]
- Forage.[vi] Keep a constant eye out for provisions.
- Find a good bag to carry things in. And then tell a story about it. [vii]
- Be aware of your nearest source of protein. Maintain reasonable expectations of what this may be.[viii]
- General expectation management. Hoping for a better ‘lifestyle’ is nice; however always maintain hope in direct relation to plausible outcomes—not reliant on constant, accessible and affordable energy for instance.[ix]
- Make kin—human and nonhuman; also learn more about your current companions.[x] Again manage your expectations: not everyone you approach will reciprocate your kinship—wolf-folk, although attractive, are not suited to your climate or perhaps your friendship.
- Remember: everyone is different, and this is a good thing. [xi]
- Find methods for breaking with habits: such as energy use, water use, but also linguistic habit, habitual ways of seeing…[xii]
- Research mosquito avoidance and deterrence. Survival will be understood in terms of hand-eye co-ordination and dexterity. Otherwise you might approach an amphibian, or arachnid as a companion.
- Learn Asylum Seeker and Refugee law. And then rewrite the law.
- Become familiar with strangeness: learn to live the uncanny.[xiii]
- Learn and contribute to the lexis of the Anthropocene: new wor(l)ds to understand, new stories to tell.[xiv]
- Study methods for engaging and coping with loss: for instance to express Solastalgia.[xv] However! Also learn to protect that which isn’t lost: engage Soliphilia.[xvi]
- Accept your vulnerability.[xvii]
[i] Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2017, p. 26.
[ii] I’m sorry.
[iii] Consider skills needed, or valued by a wide variety of human and nonhuman communities. For instance: fermentation, cooking food with limited resources, finding water, see point 2: methods for cooling down.
[iv] A starting point may be re-figuring an understanding of your own body as a ‘body of water’. See Astrida Neimanis, 2017. Also see James Linton, What is water?: a History of Modern Abstraction, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2010. Be prepared to reconsider notions of water, and rethink your body’s ‘situatedness’ in relation to the ‘hydrocommons’ and to other bodies of water. As Astrida writes: ‘For us humans, the flow and flush of waters sustain our own bodies, but also connect them to other bodies, to other worlds beyond our human selves’ (p. 2). What responsibilities are re-learned in such a figuring?
[v] The only certainty is uncertainty; the only thing determined is indeterminacy (see point 1). As Anna Tsing writes, ‘We hear about precarity in the news every day. People lose their jobs or get angry because they never had them. Gorillas and river porpoises hover at the edge of extinction. Rising seas swamp Pacific islands. But most of the time we imagine such precarity to be an exception to how the world works…What if, as I’m suggesting, precarity is the condition of our time—or, to put it another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity? What if precarity, indeterminacy, and what we imagine as trivial are the center of the systematicity we seek?’
See Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2015 p. 20. If, at times this is overwhelming, remember: ‘Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible’. In her work Anna Tsing traces the biological and economical history of the matsutake mushroom, which thrives in precarious sites of deforestation.
[vi] To start, see the work of Diego Bonetto, Diego Bonetto, n.d., https://diego-bonetto-weeds.squarespace.com/about/#bio, viewed 12 October 2017; as well as The Wild Food Map, n.d., http://wildfood.in/, viewed 12 October 2017.
[vii] See Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Paladin, Great Britain, 1992, pp. 165-170.
‘If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a soldier container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all’ (p. 168).
[viii] Learn a few tasty insect recipes to ease yourself in. See Daniella Martin, Girl Meets Bug: Edible Insects: the Eco-logical Alternative, wordpress, n.d., https://edibug.wordpress.com/recipes/, viewed 12 October 2017.
[ix] Human Impact Lab, Climate Clock, Human Impact Lab, n.d., https://climateclock.net/, viewed 12 October 2017.
[x] For more reading see Donna Haraway, ‘Companion Species Manifesto’, in Manifestly Haraway, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016a; Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham Duke University Press, Durham, 2016b.
[xi] This may seem like a given, but is surprisingly difficult to grasp and enact. A potential starting point: Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, Routledge, New York, 1991, pp. 183-201. Language, too, is a key tool for learning to accept and celebrate difference; however may also be used as a method of subjugation. Linguistic intersubjectivity is one way to start to reconsider the ways you are using language, and the creatures that you talk to. See Donald Davidson, Truth, Language, and History, Oxford University Online, Berkeley, 2005. For more on breaking habits see point 13 and note 12.
Genetic swapping during amoeba sex is Ursula Le Guin’s own model for intersubjective communication: ‘amoeba A and amoeba B exchange genetic “information,” that is, they literally give each other inner bits of their bodies…This is very similar to how people unite themselves and give each other parts of themselves—inner parts, mental not bodily parts—when they talk and listen.’ See Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Telling is Listening’, in The Wave in the Mind, Shambhala, Boston, 2004, p. 189.
[xii] A beginning point could be reworking infrastructure—if the light-switch is too convenient, remove the switch; similarly, to break with linguistic habit the structure must be dismantled or reworked. Experimental language use, such as can be found in (but not limited to) science fiction is one way to rework language structures. Ideas arising from and inspired by: Jennifer Mae Hamilton, Astrida Neimanis & Pia van Gelder, Hacking the Anthropocene II: Weathering Conference, University of Sydney, Sydney, 26 May 2017.
[xiii] As author Jeff VanderMeer has said: ‘There are ways in which global warming is like a haunting, because it appears everywhere and nowhere at the same time.’ See ‘Apocalypse, Now’, On the Media, podcast, WNYC Radio, 7 July 2017, http://www.npr.org/podcasts/452538775/on-the-media, viewed 12 October 2017. VanderMeer’s own science fictional writing explores human relationships to environment and nature through the notion of the uncanny, particularly his Sothern Reach Trilogy (2014).
Also see Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt (eds), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2017. In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet the editors speak of the Anthropocene through ghosts and monsters alike: ‘Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life. We see this clearly in the presence of plants whose animal seed-dispersers are no longer with us.’ However, ‘Anthropogenic landscapes are also haunted by imagined futures. We are willing to turn things into rubble, destroy atmospheres, sell out companion species in exchange for dreamworlds of progress’ (p. G2).
[xiv] A resource to begin with is Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott’s Bureau of Linguistical Reality. See Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott, Ther Bureau of Linguistical Reality, 2014, https://bureauoflinguisticalreality.com/, viewed 12 October 2017. As well as the work of Robert Mcfarlane. See Robert Macfarlane, ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet forever’, The Guardian, 1 April 2016, available from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever, viewed 12 October 2017.
[xv] Solastalgia: ‘the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment. Solastalgia exists when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under assault (physical desolation).’ In contrast to nostalgia, solastalgia is experienced as a home changes around you. See Glenn Albrecht, ‘Solastalgia’, Psychoterratica, 2013, http://www.psychoterratica.com/solastalgia.html, viewed 12 October 2017. For Glenn Albrecht language can be means to engage with Anthropogenic loss and change, his work begins to develop linguistic and conceptual framework for understanding ‘psychoterratic’ conditions, or mental states related to the earth.
Another method of engaging with loss, discussed by Robert Mcfarlane, is through records. He uses the example of conservation biologist Julianne Warren’s ‘Hopes Echo’, which responds to a recording made in 1954 of Maori man, Henare Hamana. The recording is of a mimicked bird call: a vocal replication of the Huia, a New Zealand bird now extinct due to ‘habitat destruction, introduced predators and overhunting for its black and ivory tail feathers.’ As Julianne Warren writes it is ‘a soundtrack of the sacred voices of extinct birds echoing in that of a dead man echoing out of a machine echoing through the world today’. Robert Mcfarlane, 2016; Julianne Warren, The Poetry Lab: “Hope’s Echo” by Julianne Warren, The Merwin Conservancy, 2 November 2015, https://merwinconservancy.org/2015/11/the-poetry-lab-hopes-echo-by-author-julianne-warren-center-for-humans-and-nature/, viewed 12 October 2017. Another haunting perhaps.
Finally, see also Lesley Head, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human-nature relations, Routledge, London, 2016.
[xvi] Soliphilia: ‘is manifest in the interdependent solidarity and the wholeness or unity needed between people to overcome the alienation and disempowerment present in contemporary political decision-making. Soliphilia introduces the notion of political commitment to the saving of loved home environments at all scales, from the local to the global.’ Glenn Albrecht, ‘Solastalgia’, Psychoterratica, 2013, http://www.psychoterratica.com/soliphilia.html, viewed 12 October 2017.
[xvii] As Anna Tsing has written: ‘Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others.’ Anna Tsing, 2015, p. 20.
[xviii] Furthermore Tsing writes: ‘To live with precarity requires more than railing at those who put us here (although that seems useful too, and I’m not against it). We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours.’ Anna Tsing, 2015, p. 3. Through the practice of observing and listening, new (and old but previously overlooked) methods of continuance might be learnt.
Michael R. Griffiths | July 2017
For Theodor Adorno, the autonomy of the art work is the condition of possibility (and not the condition of refusal) of their political efficacy. As Adorno puts it:
Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity. Its contribution to society is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: It is resistance in which by virtue of inner-aesthetic development, social development is reproduced without being imitated.
Where the setting of a text in the future would appear to distance speculative fiction from present political and ecological exigencies, I argue that this process of speculation proximates critiques of hegemony projecting its consequences. As Adorno suggests, then, mediation per se is a mode of rendering proximate. Similarly, Adorno once wrote that “[a]rtworks detach themselves from the empirical world, and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity.” This piece is drawn from a longer essay, which was assembled for Responses to Climate Change—a Symposium led by Tony Birch. As well as being an acclaimed writer of fiction, Birch is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Unit at Victoria University (Melbourne).
Birch’s work is concerned with methodologies for research around climate change that are grounded in Indigenous-led practice. His keynote presentation from Responses to Climate Change laid out several key points that form part of his own research itinerary around ideas of place and ecology in the humanities. Crucially, Birch sees in the humanities’ open and speculative approach a promise to inform climate science. First of all, Birch advised conference participants to, when doing research on climate change, keep in mind how we talk about this issue and who we are talking to about it. He gave the example of working with children in Irish and inner city London schools as well as on Country around Victoria. Birch’s approach was not to lecture to his students on climate change but to bring home to them the significance of place. He had the children record their most “special” places through writing and photography, before asking them what it would mean to them if these places were lost. This connects to another key point raised by Birch in his keynote, which was to empower people outside academia and politics. Too often climate change researchers in the sciences and humanities operate in an echo chamber, which sees them communicating with one another but not with the wider world. It is incumbent upon researchers and practitioners to not only communicate beyond the academy (or the world of representative politics) but to think about the specific positionality of those with whom we are communicating. Birch also suggested that scholars rethink models of collaboration between environmentalists and Aboriginal people. This must depend on seeing Country as having Aboriginal knowledge embedded within it and not by seeing “nature” as “pristine.” Finally, Birch underscored the role of the humanities in this process. For him one of the challenges and the advantages of the humanities is the speculative ethos of engagement in a learning process. While anthropogenic climate change is a certainty, its physical and social effects are unpredictable and a similarly open-minded, speculative approach is needed to engage it.
I want to follow Birch’s ideas about speculation here to foreground the role of climate fiction by Indigenous writers. I do so in order to emphasise my conviction that imaginative work (such as fiction) can open up crucial modes of questioning vis a vis climate change. The crucial problem, I argue, arises in the tension between engagement and autonomy. Works of art and writing (like climate fictions) are autonomous, whereas understanding and taking action about climate change is (one would assume) a fundamentally engaged process. In their future projections of dispossession, Indigenous climate fictions—with their simultaneous narration of the promises and pitfalls of resistance—dialectically intertwine to proffer a critique of settler interventions that are often named as progressive acts. By figuring an imagined future, these texts reveal the hypocrisies of dispossession present in the liberal policies of settler colonial governance extant today.
Consider, for instance, Alexis Wright’s 2013 novel of—amidst much else—climate change and Indigenous futurity, The Swan Book. In Wright’s novel, dust settles on a lake and even as “the old story that lived inside the ancestral people of the lake” survives the dust. With the arrival of climate refugees, the swans themselves invade, “polluting” this sacred site, transformed as it is, into a swamp (Wright 8, 10). Wright’s narrator asks:
Could an ancient hand be responsible for this? The parched paper country looking as though the continent’s weather systems had been rolled like an ancient scroll from its top and bottom ends, and ping, sprung shut over the Tropic of Capricorn. The weather then flipped sides, swapping southern weather with that of the north, and this unique event of unrolling the climate upside down, left the entire continent covered in dust.
—Alexis Wright, The Swan Book.
To speculate on the autonomy of art work is to speculate on an Australia where in North and South are “flipped.” Surely Waanyi country in the North of the Gulf of Carpentaria can find an affinal thread destined for the south.
 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1997, 226.
 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. 1.
 Alexis Wright, The Swan Book. Sydney: Giramondo, 2013, 17–8. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text.
Liz Linden | June 2017
I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to articulate this about myself prior to starting my PhD at Wollongong, but after the initial period of drilling down, working out, and pushing through the ideas circumscribing the ‘research space’ of my studio work with appropriation and globalization, it became clear that what I am actually interested in is postmodernism, the Pictures exhibition, and the critical, internecine struggles for no less than the soul of contemporary art that took place in the pages of Artforum and October. In short: the 1970s.
Anybody who has been to my house could have saved me the trouble. It’s full of houseplants. I recently read something about the ‘daggy’ 70s houseplant trend, accompanied by a photo ostensibly illustrating the same, but all I thought was, ‘Oooh! What a fantastic Monstera!’
And, as it is for most of us, one thing bleeds into another. What began as a purely domestic interest became a more theoretical/conceptual one as houseplants migrated to my studio, in the flesh and in representation (‘representation’, of course, being another of the obsessions of the 70s). In fact, I did a whole exhibition of (mostly) houseplant related work in 2014 at a photography foundation in Atlanta, Georgia.
By then, I had become interested in how complex houseplants were as signifiers read within in the larger text of an interior design catalog or a corporate lobby, that they bore, on their slimmest of shoulders, the weight of so many metaphors and impossibly virtuous ideals. For example, one work in that exhibition was this:
Signs (Atlanta) consisted of two identical Phalaenopsis orchids, one real and one artificial, presented side by side on pedestals. The sculpture takes the ubiquitous interior design element of the moth orchid (found in minimalist kitchens, spa-bathrooms, hotel lobbies, and receptionists’ desks the world over) and turns our attention to its oxymoronic status in the built world as ‘minimalist decoration’. The paradoxical semiotic work this plant does in architecture is to invoke both simplicity and luxury at once. The doubling of the plant, pairing the one alive with its polyester-and-plastic simulacrum, alluded to this specious duality as a sign. Further, the plausibility of making the sculpture, locating a ‘real’ orchid doppelgänger in the flower markets in Atlanta for a pre-existing ‘fake’ orchid, rested on the disquieting truth that the farmed natural world is in some ways as predictable now as the mass-produced itself.
Since then, I have continued to work with houseplants and how they operate in consumer culture, sometimes in more oblique ways. Earlier this year, I photographed Parliament House. I’ve always been interested in the peculiar colour scheme of each chamber and wondered if there might be something interesting to be made of their unorthodox fuchsia and mint palettes. Already you can see the point: that the halls of power are softened by the presence of plants. The metaphors are not subtle, and neither—perhaps resultantly—are the colours.
Does the fact that our lawmakers meet to debate the future of Australia inside rooms assuring them of nature’s soothing presence or their own masterful and assured place in it in any way sway their arguments? True, these are just names on paint chips ascribed along lines of corporate logic, not likely known to the people working in their spaces, but the colours are, in the end, unmistakably ‘natural’. Does the fact Parliament shapes the laws of the land in rooms painted in imitation of the outdoors says something heartening about their sensitivities to nature, or does it simply disclose their ruthless, supplementary logic? It’s a question that can be asked in my own house as well—is this comfort I find in my houseplants related to being closer to the outside in or being close enough?
As an artist, I do raise an eyebrow every time I see nature represented (which means mobilized) in service of the powers-that-be, be they Parliament, Capitalism, or, as they would say in the 70s, God herself. Slim shoulders, big ask.
Pip Newling | May 2017
My constant companion on this writing residency in the Finnish Lake District is Haukijärvi, the lake (järvi) of pike (hauki), which sits directly across from the old school house I am staying in. It appears out of most windows, including my bedroom window and I frequently catch it out of the corner of my eye.
Water is always present in Finland with over 200,000 lakes. On my daily outdoor excursions I discover that every culvert, dip or roadside gutter is full of water too. The lakes are fed by underground springs and water is used for everything, including heating, and is wildly thrown about in Finland’s still traditional pastime, the sauna. Finns have no fear that their water will run out.
The forests here, like everything I find, confuse me. They are full of huge boulders, and mounds of earth with pale, dirty low clumps of grass, beginning to turn green, covering any bare ground. The trees are spruce, pine and the fast growing birch, and the shadows become dense and cold the further I make my way into the stands of trees. Bogs lie in wait behind boulders and below the lumpy rises of earth caused by the regular removal of trees. Finns call themselves ‘suomi’. ‘Suo’ translates as bog or swamp; Finns are literally people of the bog.
Silvery grey moss is slowly engulfing many of the trees and tendrils of air moss hang off already-dead limbs bringing instantly to mind European children’s storybook images of haunted forests. A walk in these forests is no easy feat.
There is no old growth forest. Most of the forest is plantation but the distinctions between plantation and tree are not visible until the trees are removed. There are no boundary fences so raised earth paths and dug out channels are the only markers of the edge of fields and forests. Swathes of stumps and boulders and mountains of cut and stacked timber mark where trees recently stood. Around every bend there are more stumps, more stacks of wood waiting to be collected. This logging seems too much, too regular, too destructive.
Nancy Holt’s ‘Up and Under’ (Yltä ja Alta) and Agnes Denes ‘Tree Mountain’ (Puuovirri) are impressive land art works made in the early 1990s just a twenty minute drive away. Both are large scale reclamations of industrial sites. Holt reclaimed a sand mining pit with an intersection of massive concrete pipes and rammed earth set into a swirling shape, with height, acoustics and reflection in a work planned so it could be seen from space. The weight of the earth above the concrete tunnels presses down and creates a sinking, lowering-into-earth feeling as I walk through.
In Denes’ work, over 10,600 pine trees were planted to a mathematical pattern she adapted from the sunflower and pineapple and then spread over a human-made mountain and across the flat of an old gravel pit. The trees support local ecosystems, provide windbreaks and are harvested regularly, just like any ordinary plantation but all these years later the mathematical pattern still holds.
Denes’ ‘mountain’ is steep to climb but feels in keeping with the other Finnish forests I have walked through, awkward, full of moss, and not wanting me to linger. Except there is no water, I realise. The dirt is dry, sandy and gravelly, with no lakes or bogs close by.
Both projects were supported by the community, local government and business and have endured. Denes’ in particular stays with me and strikes a meditative and inspiring chord, art in landscape working toward an environmental future.
They make me think of privilege too, these artworks, my privilege and also Holt’s and Denes’ and the other artists I am on the residency with, 11 other artists from the US, Sweden, Taiwan, Japan, Peru, South Africa and another Australian.
As I sit at my desk, I watch some of them wander through the yellow-gold stubbly wheat field opposite, trudging across furrows, taking their photos, recording sounds, all without asking permission of the owner who lives in a house not far from the field; all after being told by the residency director to walk around the fields not through them.
I can’t help but say out loud, as one of the video artists journeys back across the field towards her camera, ‘Look, there, that is privilege right there’. And right here, too, in my lap. I wonder about transplanting myself ‘to make art’ or, as one of the other artists said ‘to do art’. I also think about respect, but perhaps just about manners.
Later, I realise I misunderstood. Finland has ‘Everyman’s Rights’ which mean anyone can walk through any land without asking. The Finns believe that all should be able to enjoy the outdoors free of charge and I come to understand the link between the no fences and general access to property. The artists are completely within their rights to wander about the yet-to-be-tilled-for-spring wheat field, the director was only indicating that people’s house yards are not be entered.
I am disturbed by this. I wonder if it is just my settler eyes that can only see land through ownership, through division, through fences. I think perhaps this may be true. But I again wonder about manners and art made in collaboration with place, from emplacement, response and curiosity, and the complexity and richness that can produce.
The video artist seems flummoxed when later in the sauna I ask what the landowner thinks of her art project. ‘I don’t know,’ she says.
The artist’s work is focused around the seasons and as the temperature in the sauna reaches 120 degrees Celsius, I muse further, ‘Perhaps you could ask the landowner what her favourite season is? Maybe she might want to be involved too.’
The artist looks at me as though I’ve said something terrifically strange. ‘Oh. I didn’t think of that.’
Pip gratefully received funding from the Australia Council to attend the Arteles Creative Residency in Finland (www.arteles.org)
Laura Fisher | April 2017
In July 2016, I visited the island of Öland, on the east coast of Sweden, and spent 9 days with Kultivator. Kultivator is located on an organic cattle farm and was established by artists Malin Lindmark Vrijman and Mathieu Vrijman over ten years ago. A painted canvas in their house from an earlier project states that “we shall make art like farmers and farm like artists”, and this is perhaps the most concise way to convey their ethos. Over the years their land has been an evolving site of creative constructions, performances, education and experiments in ways of living.
Their place is a ramshackle collection of farm buildings that have been converted into living spaces, stables and workshops. The first thing you encounter as you leave the road is a fenced round pen with a sandy floor, with “Horses, Fuck Yeah” in wooden lettering around the railing.
Upon my arrival, I was immediately involved in preparations for a party to mark Eid, the end of Ramadan, for members of Öland’s large population of refugees (as a holiday island, Öland has absorbed a substantial proportion of Sweden’s refugee intake from Syria and other places). Kultivator are playing a significant role in refugee ‘integration’ on Öland, to use the government’s phrase. In fact, their skills as socially engaged artists were being recognised by local and European authorities, and they were even being paid for their work (the only other organisation being proactive at the local level was the church…).
Many of Kultivator’s activities with refugee visitors revolved around a project called ‘new horse cultures’. Given the rich horse traditions of the Middle East, horses were an obvious point of connection between the refugees and the existing island community, which had an enduring recreational horse culture. Yet, as Malin observed: ‘you cannot really come to it, somehow, it is exclusive, like art… We have been opposing this eliteness of art ever since we started. I also wanted to oppose the eliteness of horse culture.’ Kultivator wanted to create ‘a new horse culture, this is also for people from other parts of the world, that here would not have access to the horse culture, or it’s for a guy like Matthieu that rides horses, “fuck yeah”, who likes something about it, but who is not correct in that horsey world sense of it.’
Malin sees her interactions with a horse as inherently poetic:
I think it’s a poetic essence and something very physical. The sensation of riding is… I was thinking of it yesterday, when I rode without a saddle. You sit there, the horse is walking, and your hips are moving. it’s like you’re walking, but when you get into it, after an hour or something, it’s my legs… It’s a bond… the horse has a mind that you’re also connected to. If it’s scared, or finds something uncomfortable, you’ll feel that when you move. And if you’re scared and uncomfortable, the horse will feel that, because they’re social…
Malin’s core project while I was there was a study group for refugee women which saw them visit once or twice a week over 4 months to groom, saddle and ride the horses, and practice speaking about horses using relevant Swedish words. As we pondered the relationship between women and horses, Malin raised something I’d never given thought to before: girl-focused visual culture portrays the horse relationship in terms of a love-saturated, cutesy femininity, which is perverse given that a horse is a hugely strong, and potentially very dangerous animal to be around. The horse demands a kind of strength from a human that has nothing to do with gender, and is communicated through bearing, self-assurance, tone of voice and through other non-linguistic forms of interaction. That special, intense relationship that girls and women have had with horses throughout history in fact points to a domain of female independence from men, and of respite from patriarchal relations.
This got me thinking about how patriarchy had shaped my perception of horse culture. Having spent most of my life living near the Randwick Race Course in Sydney, my childhood impression of horses was wrapped up in the image of racing, betting, women wearing silly hats, and drunken punters barely avoiding death on Anzac Parade. Each season was marked by a fresh spate of billboard advertisements carrying the message “princesses welcome”. As I grew older and acquired a feminist ethic, I came to hate these caricatures of womanhood. My other encounters with horses – those rode by police to bear down on activists at street marches – have also been abhorrently patriarchal.
Malin’s project with refugee women was decidedly feminist, but it was a feminism that didn’t have to be articulated as such – rather she treated the horse as a gentle catalyst for personal transformation in a women-only environment:
You need to act as a leader, you need to be the one that decides and takes the first step. It’s not about being an aggressive, dominant, mean leader – that might lead somewhere, but not all the way – you have to be someone that has a sort of confidence in your own body, in your own body language, and therefore you need to trust yourself.
Riding was still a scary prospect for some of the women, and Malin saw the various tasks associated with horse care as almost more significant, because they ‘create situations of togetherness and work’. The woman had initially thought Malin was crazy because she talked to the horses, but when I participated the stable was filled with the sound of affectionate murmuring.
I feel very privileged to have been able to inhabit the alternative social space Malin’s project produced. In these hours women were able to dwell in the company of women, and establish a very tactile connection with a being that didn’t make the kind of emotional demands that another human does. Malin’s project was crafted to take advantage of the qualities the horse possesses that make it an agent of potential change for the individual – wordless companionship, an impression of liberty, a different relationship to one’s body, and the possibility of a shift in outlook on one’s place in the world.
Sarah Goffman | March 2017
Having finished installing my exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery, I passed a football sized and shaped rock in the street. It was casually sitting on the pavement close to a shop window. Had it been put there? Dropped there? Grey and smooth, with a shattered right side area, perhaps a river rock. I saw that rock in passing, or it saw me, and I said to myself ‘if only I had seen this the day before yesterday, I would’ve grabbed it’. Because a rock means so much; it implies the presence of the past, and represents Earth. Too late and too heavy to pick up, the rock sits in my brain on hold. I might have to begin my next exhibition with a rock just to make amends.
On the train from Sydney to Wollongong I always sit in the bottom of the quiet carriage, near the back, next to a double window for maximum viewing pleasure. Going down, I sit on the left hand side; coming back I like to sit on the left till the first stop, Thirroul, so I can enjoy the mystical escarpment, but then I move to the right so I get full and wide-distance ocean views. Once I was on the train and a teenager declared loudly, “I hate the ocean”…hm.
I check the window for hair product right away when I sit down and give it a wipe with a cloth if necessary. It’s a bit disgusting how much gunk adheres to the window glass and I don’t want to have to peer through it. I have promised myself that when I complete my thesis, one of the things I would do would be to go out on a train cleaning bombardment. Armed with cloths, vinegar and newspaper I will give some carriages a once over.
There’s a rock that we travel past outside of Stanwell Park, which always catches my eye. It’s huge and egg shaped with blue spray paint on the underside, looking like a scribble. In my diary I’ve written “has been placed there”. But I don’t really know, do I? I think about that rock and how big it is, how I’d love to have it in my home, or to sit next to it. I think about the graffiti on it, and that vandalism which only serves to accentuate the natural colours of the rock.
A few weeks ago I got the chance to have a day at Wattamolla, in the Royal National Park. It was a great, warm sunny day and the ocean was surprisingly calm. We got to the carpark early, around 9am, only to be greeted by the hugest pile of plastic plates, plastic forks, plastic bags, dozens of water bottles and foul smelling containers. It was like a party of fifty had had chicken and chilli take-aways, leaving the entire (I’m not exaggerating) mess on the ground, next to the (empty) bins…fuck! We cleaned it up of course, getting stinking sauce all over us. Whoever left that is a real asshole. I pity them. Down at the beach was heaven, and we sat near the rocks on the far left. I couldn’t stand to look at the giant beauties, as they had been spray painted with (blue) tags, and there was such a discrepancy between their natural wonder and the offensive tags, it hurt me to see it. We went for a walk around the lagoon, and kept finding human rubbish tossed and discarded. I recall going there years ago, and finding a full six pack of Coronas, a chopping board and knife set, and all the packaging that had made that picnic into a reality…I still have the chopping board and knives (we drank the beers). But really, really!
We waded into the lagoon and found a rock facing the water, pristine and perched like the holy Mother of God. I felt fortunate that we explored sufficiently to find it, and it sits in my mind, giving me hope for humanity, hope for nature and hope for life as it persists.
See Sarah Goffman’s exhibition, I am a 3-D Printer, at the Wollongong Art Gallery, March 10—June 18, 2017.
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