This issue of Transformations aims to establish a toolkit of conceptual resources that can provoke, incite and inform new practices and interventions in the environmental arts.
We define the environmental arts broadly for this purpose, with a particular emphasis on modes of thinking, feeling, sensing, designing, making, performing and composing that are attuned to environmental change and are inherently collective in nature.
In this respect, artists have often been years and even decades ahead of others in responding to the conceptual and practical challenges of environmental change. Since the 1960s, artists such as Robert Smithson, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Helen and Newton Harrison, Joseph Beuys and Suzanne Lacy have enacted visionary environmental practices, while also conceptualising these practices within the broader fields of social theory and philosophy.
Such critical reconceptualisations of the field are urgently called for in response to mounting evidence that we have entered the Anthropocene epoch, a time typified by climate change, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, ecological instability, resource depletion, ubiquitous digitisation and rapid advances in biotechnology and computer science. In revealing the profound entanglement of human culture and natural phenomena in the contemporary world, the advent of the Anthropocene has had a destabilising effect on dualistic philosophies and binary logics that have upheld rigid barriers between the human and the nonhuman, the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the artificial, the social and the material. New concepts are called for that can mobilise creative thinking and action outside of such anthropocentric and humanistic frameworks, and mobilise new practices that are both attuned and responsive to the rapidly changing environmental conditions of everyday life.
Editors: Grayson Cooke, Warwick Mules, Erika Kerruish and David Rousell
Tactical Interventions: Environmental Sensing and Socially-Engaged Arts
Restless with my artistic output of participatory gallery-based installations that engaged audiences about broader issues around energy and resources in crisis, I’ve recently shifted my practice toward working directly with communities in addressing their local environmental problems. Appropriating the popularity of citizen science and do-it-yourself making as tactics for engagement, this new work builds upon an important history of engineered artworks and activist strategies to make environmental sensing devices with community participants. Airtracs is a two-year community-based project that uses electronic toys as a starting point for dialogue and hands-on learning about the cradle-to-grave life cycle of electronics. The project then progresses to air quality monitoring, augmenting remote control toy trucks (rovers) equipped with cellular networking and inexpensive sensors to push data to a server. The rovers are created by youth participants living in an environmental justice community with a long-time struggle with the City of Albany and the State of New York to reduce the air pollution in their neighbourhood. Building upon a history of similar art and activist initiatives, this paper demonstrates how these community-based projects challenge regulatory standards in air quality assessment, confronting the controversies and critical issues revolving around calibration and data quality of low-cost sensing devices.
Air quality monitoring, citizen science, critical making, do-it-yourself, socially-engaged art
The Vicissitudes of the Image: Materiality and the Environment in the Old Growth Project
What can an image do? And what can we do with images? These are broad questions, and need narrowing in any case, just as a concept of “the image” needs defining. After all, we live in a culture of images, they explode across our screens and public spaces in so many forms that any discussion of the image is reliant on context to be useful. This paper addresses these questions within the context of media art: the aim of this paper is to explore ways in which artistic enquiry and production can contribute to the discourse around environmental issues, particularly within the context of the Anthropocene, where humanity’s influence on global geological and atmospheric conditions is understood to constitute a new geological epoch. I will explore my Old Growth project as a way of thinking through this problematic. The Old Growth project is a series of three video works that explore the effects of anthropogenic climate change and resource extraction, through a kind of material allegory or media analogue, whereby photographs of a series of sedimentary or accretive environments are subjected to chemical degradation. Across the three works, the project conducts both an environmental critique and a material enquiry, by using photographic media and corrosive chemicals to “materialize” environmental degradation along different channels than the documentary record.
Image, materiality, archive, memory, art/science, environment, Anthropocene, photography
Catastrophe Aesthetics: the moving image and the mattering of the world
Aesthetic intervention can reveal new views of the world that work towards undermining the prevailing anthropocentric ideas that undergird the catastrophe of climate change. This paper outlines “catastrophe aesthetics,” an artistic strategy that attempts to deal with “the mess” of the Earth in an effort to “turn the world anew.” To exemplify this aesthetic orientation, I examine three geologically themed films that feature the “matter” of the Earth: Adrien Missika’s Darvaza, Sasha Litvintseva and Isabel Mallet’s The Stability of the System, and Terra Jean Long’s Notes from the Anthropocene. These works share commonalities with new materialist philosophies in that they examine the way in which the “stories” of rocks, fossils, dirt, and other subterranean substances are deeply entangled with humans and have a key role in creating meaning in the world. These films contest the stance that the ground materials of the Earth are inert objects to be used or ignored. Instead, they grant to these substances a certain kind of agency and history.
Catastrophe, film, environmental crisis, geology, human-earth relations, anthropocene
Since 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has met every year in an attempt to implement a global mechanism for averting runaway climate change. Over these 25 years the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone from 352 Parts Per Million (PPM) to 408 PPM in 2017. Even at the time the UNFCCC was conceived, the CO2 concentration was already above 350 PPM, the conservative notional maximum concentration that would not precipitate runaway climate change. Concentrations of greenhouse gases have resulted in Earth having a net energy imbalance since 1971, whereby more energy is retained in the atmosphere and hydrosphere than emitted back into space. In addition, the roughly four decade inertia of the climate system is such that the climate currently being experienced is due to emissions from around the time the Earth went into positive energy balance in 1971. Given the volume of emissions since then, a substantial increase in climate is already committed even if all releases ceased today.
In light of how global mitigation attempts have manifestly failed to decrease Earth’s Energy Imbalance, the last decade has seen a substantial increase in scientific research and proposals for an altogether different response: intervention through climate engineering. The consequences of inaction (mitigation as intentional influence) or action (climate engineering as intentional intervention) have planetary scale consequences. In response, this article explores an emerging body of art practice that has shifted from meditating on the manifestations and consequences of climate change, to mediating in Earth’s Energy Imbalance. The article explores this shift in practice of environmental art as remedial action from invoking forms of climate engineering to intentionally intervene in the causation of climate change. The discussion of this emerging body of practice speculates on how art that mediates in Earth’s Energy Imbalance offers a portent of the Anthropocene as the re-making of the world-as-artifact.
Climate Engineering, Climate Policy, Remediation, Earth’s Energy Imbalance, Anthropocene
Benjamin Abraham and Darshana Jayemanne
Where are all the climate change games? Locating digital games’ response to climate change
The burgeoning genre of climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” in literature and the arts has begun to attract both scholarly and popular attention. It has been described as “potentially [having] crucial contributions to make toward full understanding of the multiple, accelerating environmental challenges facing the world today” (Buell). Implicitly, these works confront the current orthodoxy about where exactly the issue of climate change sits in domains of knowledge. As Jordan notes: “climate change as ‘nature” not culture is still largely perceived as a problem for the sciences alongside planning, policy, and geography” (Jordan 8). In this paper we ask where is, or alternatively what could climate fiction look like within the field of digital games? Even a passing familiarity with the cultural output of the mainstream game industry reveals the startling omission of the issue – with very few games telling stories that engage with climate change and the unfolding ecological crisis (Abraham “Videogame Visions”). Finding a relative dearth of explicit engagement, this paper offers an alternative engagement with climate change in games by focussing on the underlying ideas, conceptions and narratives of human-environment relationships that have been a part of games since their earliest incarnations. We argue that it is possible to read games for particular conceptualisations of human relationships to nature, and offer a description of four highly prevalent “modes” of human-environment engagement. We describe and analyse these relationships for their participation in or challenge to the same issues and problems that undergird the current ecological crisis, such as enlightenment narratives of human mastery and dominion over the earth.
Videogames, environmentalism, climate change, ecology, sustainability
Annihilating Critique: Walter Benjamin’s World Politics as the Just-Sharing of Nature
This article develops an outline of Walter Benjamin’s idea of annihilating critique as presented in his essay fragment entitled “Theological-Political Fragment.” Annihilating critique is a world politics that releases thought from thinking the good in terms of relativised values and the efficiency of means, in order to think the good as absolute value. My claim is that such a critique is needed to respond to the demand of climate change: the call to me from an immanent outside to change my relation to nature from one based on possessiveness in systems of relative value (the neoliberal market), where the good of nature becomes my own self-interest, to one based on non-possessive having of the good of nature as sharing in common. In developing this critique, the article proposes the concept of just-sharing – the common sharing of the good of nature – through a reading of Benjamin’s brief notes entitled “Notes to a Study on the Category of Justice,” in which a subject is retrieved as the novum of critique. Through just-sharing, a non-possessive subject – one capable of thinking the good of nature as just – is proposed. Such a subject takes responsibility for ends it shares with others by naming them and acting as an agent of their fulfilment. Further reading of Benjamin’s essays on the task of the poet outlines how critique in the name of a non-possessive subject can become a praxis of poetizing, where the critical act itself partakes of the good of nature as just-sharing.
Walter Benjamin, critique, the subject, environmental politics, virtue, nature, poetics, Jean-Luc Nancy, neoliberalism
Generic humanity: interspecies technologies, climate change & non-standard animism
How could we reconcile these two ethical and political projects: on the one hand, a desire to seek a politics beyond the existing history of humanism, on the other, a precaution to not fall in line with the violent history that dehumanisation had already amassed? In the Anthropocene, art is often charged with the task of “fictionalising” nature beyond the known and the human; yet in this paper, I propose that it could also produce a science-fiction or a philo-fiction of humanity itself. Looking at various examples of Natalie Jeremijenko’s work, I argue that she approximates a politics that does not yet exist: a practice of “generic humanity” in times of interspecies environmental vulnerability. Theorising her work at the intersection of animism and non-philosophy, I label it a non-standard animism, a modelling of governance through non-standard personalisation, which provides cross-species, biometric tools.
Non-philosophy, animal studies, the Anthropocene, environment, media arts, Natalie Jeremijenko
Advances in the science of plants increasingly reveal the sensitivities of vegetal life. Although characterised as contemporary neuro-botany, research into botanical percipience can be traced back at least to Charles Darwin and Jagadish Chandra Bose. Bose developed novel instruments to make visible the endemic semiosis of vegetal life, or what he termed plant script. Despite the thinking of Bose and Darwin, however, a prevailing zoocentric ontology continues to marginalise the capacities of vegetal nature and, what is more, contributes to aspects of climate change, species loss and biocultural disintegration. Set within the New England Tablelands of Australia and invoking principles of interspecies dialogue and poetic collaboration, this article investigates the potential of the creative arts to engage, evoke and elicit plant sensitivities. Rather than constructing them as objects of representation, I consider the possibility of creative exchange with plants in which plant script intergrades with the production of a text. Extending the notion of collaboration in the environmental arts to include vegetal being, the article draws in particular from ideas of agential realism to explore the potential of writing practices to initiate new social, biological, political and imaginative perspectives on flora.
Botanical poetry, Jagadish Chandra Bose, plant script, Les Murray, Judith Wright, Peter Skrzynecki, New England Tablelands
On Writing [expressing a relation to] Dried Plant Specimens
This paper discusses an instance of, or an attempt at, interspecies communication, collaboration, or convocation. I am writing dried specimens in the Southern Cross Plant Science Medicinal Plant Herbarium, Southern Cross University, Australia. Wendy Wheeler describes ecocriticism, developed late last century, as a “new critical formation” responding to environmental crises. The paper will briefly allude to these crises, and ecocriticism and its cognates, and suggested procedures for action. The paper’s primary concern is wrestling with how to do interspecies communication and collaboration as such action. As Martin Harrison asks: “What are the necessary criteria for a writing which … fulfils an ecological requirement?” I consider Harrison’s, Ryan’s, and others’ suggestions of criteria, modes and procedures. I discuss using the frame of ekphrasis and the genre of the prose poem in my investigation of writing the more-than-human. I contest arguments about dealing with dried specimens as a limited sensory experience. And I consider the interdisciplinarity of this instance of creative writing with science.
Ecopoetics; ekphrasis; prose poem; Southern Cross Plant Science Medicinal Plant Herbarium, Southern Cross University; dried plant specimens
Rob Garbutt and Shauna McIntyre
The provocation of Gaïa: Learning to pay attention in Rotary Park
How do we learn with the environments we inhabit to promote mutual flourishing? This paper argues that environmental arts practice is a key component in the pedagogical process of getting to know where we live and, through a more-than-human intersubjective exchange, enriching our response-ability to the environment. To think through and work towards this pedagogy we explore a small patch of Gaïa – the Rotary Park Rainforest Reserve in Lismore, New South Wales – via a photography and video project that contemplates didactic and interpretive signs along a short walking circuit. Crucial to our contemplation of this environmental arts project are concepts for action that we develop by putting into conversation ideas from the environmental humanities and early childhood education: progettazione, time to learn, provocation and attention. Through aesthetic immersion in, and in dialogue with the forest, these concepts help us conceptualise a regenerative curriculum and relational pedagogy that energise, amongst other things, environmental arts in-the-making.
Regenerative curriculum, early childhood education (Reggio Emilia), environmental humanities, provocation, attention
Walking involves aligning, recalibrating, and interacting with the environment. Growing research in the humanities and social sciences recognises walking as an embodied practice that situates humans in the nonhuman realm, and is indicative of how our mobilities connect with larger socio-cultural and environmental systems. The ‘Land Art’ movement used walking interventions that respond to environmental elements, however many of these artworks focus on the individual human perspective, disregarding nonhuman actions that also exist in each site. Focusing on the act of walking through forests and parks in Finland and Australia, this paper examines creative practices of ‘surveying’ that foreground more-than-human movements. I discuss site-specific artworks and experiments that respond to sites frequently walked over, to create new modes of encounter that alters anthropocentric perceptions of walking practices. Measuring movements in the field, through appropriating formal practices of surveying, assists in understanding how human action is positioned within broader ecologies and global systems of measure.
Anthropocene, mobilities, creative arts, walking, parks, surveying
Plant/Human Borderland Jamming
Artists and scholars alike are turning to plants as key allies in our attempts to go beyond colonial modes of engaging with the environment through extraction, control, categorization and the human-centric discourse of Anthropocene thinking. This paper will adopt the methods of “critical plant thinking” and “multispecies ethnography” to investigate creative modes of telling “lively stories” about two particular species of plants made nomadic during colonial seed scattering – Bitou Bush (Chrysanthemoides monilifera) and Aloe (Aloe ferox). Both plants moved through botanical/colonial conquest from South Africa to Australia for ornamental reasons, yet have become a vilified weed and economically promising respectively. Turning to embodied and humble practices of composting, foraging, crafting and care, this article feels through recent practices of tactical and food based art, combining theory with ethnographic narrative that details the making of actual jam with two plants protagonists. Developing the concepts of “multispecies jamming” and “DIY violence,” this paper grapples with the presumption that difference translates to ontological separation, and ultimately asks for a valuing of plants beyond human use, opening ourselves up to embodied, vulnerable ways of ingesting stories and cross species relationships. How do practices of grounded care intersect with violence in ways that may develop tools and methods to compost the Anthropocene with plants front of mind? How might this help us to unseal ourselves from complexity and separation in times of mass extinction and destruction?
Anthropocene, plants, postcolonialism, food art, multispecies.