Collaboration or Participation? (Week 3 Reflection)

As others have indicated in the Week 3 discussion, our orientation to collaboration relates not only to our photographic practice, but also to our life-experiences, our place in the contexts we are exploring and our personal dispositions. My project, and wider practice, is inherently collaborative, and I view the participants in the work as co-investigators (with all the challenging issues that this brings). Over the course of this module, I have refined the approach I am taking and produced, what I hope is, an achievable design for the FMP. I discussed this with Cemre in the webinar, and she made a helpful suggestion about the use of The Newspaper Club for zine style publication (the broadsheet format is similar to the form used by Simon Roberts in the Election Project).

I have posted numerous examples of collaborative work over the past year in the discussion groups and in my CRJ. In addition to work related to my FMP, collaborative work has included: workshops with postgraduate urban planning students and working in the field with them to explore communities undergoing change; working alongside undergraduate students exploring object based learning with art galleries and museums; collaborative portraiture with community groups in redevelopment areas leading to a pop-up exhibition; the creation of an image bank with a development activist group; engagement with community archives in creation of composite images; mentoring projects using photovoice type approaches with young adult offenders.

Coming from an education and social science background, I share many of the influences cited by Wendy Ewald (Ewald and Gottesman, 2014; Ewald and Luvera, 2013) and in the work on the collaborative turn in photography by Daniel Palmer (2013). In exploring photovoice style approaches (Wang and Burris, 1997; Fitzgibbon and Stengel, 2018) I have come to share the reservations of researchers such as Sinha & Back (2014), who are critical of the tendency of this work to position participants as subjects rather than co-investigators (and recognise the subsequent ethical issues that arise from this). Whilst the distinction made by Chalfen (2011) between projects and studies is useful, I have commented elsewhere on the need to look again at the ethical dimensions of project style work in the light of changing social, cultural and technological circumstances. I have been concerned by the ethical looseness of a number of photographic projects we have discussed (for instance, by Susan Meiselas, in which informal contracts are implied that cannot be honoured, see Garnett and Meiselas, 2007) and about the readiness of some photographers to declare themselves as the (unproblematic) mediators of other peoples ‘stories’ (with the associated dangers of mis-recognition, homogenisation and symbolic violence that this brings; working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and artists recently has further heightened my awareness of this). It’s not that motives and commitments are being questioned here, nor that we should cease doing this kind of work, but that there are difficult ethical , epistemological and ontological issues to be addressed, which may, indeed, enrich the work that we do, for instance, in understanding and engaging with the knowledges of indigenous people (see, for instance, Pascoe, 2014), and locally and globally contextualising cultural, economic and political struggles.

Why am I tending towards collaborative photographic work whilst many others are more introspective in their approach? In part this is to do with my familiarity with and commitment to social and educational change, and my confidence in working in these settings. It is also to do with my general disposition to and interest in social interaction – I like being with, interacting with and learning about other people and their lifeworlds; in my social research this has led me to interview-based and participant observational forms of research, rather than the survey and the archive. It also has to do with my relationship with photography, which started in front of the camera as a child model, and as James has observed, these commercial settings are by necessity team efforts, with a complex division of labour and requiring participants to work together (though this is, of course, not always achieved in practice). Photography for me has always been a collaborative, collective and public activity.

In terms of the focus of this part of the course, it leads me not to deeper consideration of participatory and collaborative approaches (that is ongoing anyway in the development of my project), but rather to explore the potential of more introspective (and reflexive) forms of practice. It has also deepened my commitment to exploring, in a rigorous way, what is distinctive about photographic, and more broadly visual arts and arts more generally, approaches in advancing our understanding, and how this can enrich truly interdisciplinary exploration of the complex and pressing challenges that face us locally and globally.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Ewald, W. and Gottesman, E. 2014. We’re Talking about Life and Culture, Aperture, Issue 214, Spring 2014, 86–93.

Ewald, W. and Luvera, A. 2013. Tools for Sharing: Wendy Ewald in Conversation with Anthony Luvera, Photovoice, 20, 48–59.

Fitzgibbon, W. and Stengel, C. M. 2018. ‘Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology’, Punishment and Society, 20(4), pp. 411–431.

Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context. Harper’s Magazine, February 2007: 53-58.

Palmer, D. 2013. A collaborative turn in contemporary photography? Photographies, 6(1), 117–125.

Pascoe, B. 2014. Dark Emu. Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

Wang, C. and Burris, M. A. (1997) ‘Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment’, Health Education & Behavior. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 24(3), 369–387.

Queen’s Land: Blak Portraiture, Late 19th Century to the Present.

Cairns Art Gallery, 16th June 2019

This exhibition forms part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Festival (10th-14th July 2019), and opens officially that week. The exhibition ‘explores the relationships between personal, cultural and national identity in relation to historical and contemporary portrait images by indigenous and non-indigenous artists’. The exhibits are predominantly photographic. In a number of ways, the exhibition takes me back to my first steps in the MA programme, with the engagement with the work of Aboriginal artist Christian Thompson in June 2018.

As the notes to the exhibition state:

‘The concept of portraiture is one that is challenged through works in the exhibition, as it is evident that, for Indigenous peoples, portraiture and identity extend beyond the generally accepted western notion of a vertical representation of a face to depict the image of a person. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, identity and portraiture can be represented and interpreted through a cultural totem, a marking, a foot or hand print, a name or a ritual. It is only in very recent times that photographic portraiture has been available to Indigenous artists, and through this medium they have sought to challenge common perceptions of their identity in order to present images of themselves and others as they want to be seen’.

This resonates very much with the approach I am taking to the use of artefacts, both alongside photographs and in photographs, and the use of the photograph as an artefact. It is important to note, also, that the orientation to photographic images, particularly of people who are dead, varies greatly across different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) groups. Thompson (whose work, two images from his 2010 King Billy series, is included in this exhibition) adopts a process of ‘spiritual repatriation’, engaging with and producing work as a response to archival images of ATSI people, to avoid the reproduction of these images.

Christian Thompson, from the King Billy series, 2010.

As Lydon (2010) points out, however, some ATSI communities (particularly in South Australia) view these images as a form of Indigenous memory, creating valuable links to a lost past. This contrasts with other groups, notably from remote communities in northern Australia, for whom such images (some of which are featured in this exhibition) would be taboo. Lydon argues that archivists and curators often act, inappropriately, as gate keepers, homogenising Aboriginal culture (in much the same way that colonisers made assumptions about the homogeneity of Aboriginal languages). The point is reinforced by Michael Aird in an essay written to accompany the exhibition.

‘Regardless of how and why photographs were taken, Indigenous people are often able to look past the exploitative nature of some of these images and just accept them as treasured images of family members. To reflect on the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people have been represented in photographs, it is often simplified to a story of exploitation – yet, the story is much more complex, with stories of Indigenous people taking control of exactly how they wanted to be represented at different points in time’. [source unknown, quote taken from exhibition notes]

Tracey Moffatt, I Made a Camera, 2003.

As the exhibition demonstrates, photography can provide a powerful means for the exploration of identity by Aboriginal communities, and, as in a number of exhibits, portraiture, juxtaposed with other images and text, can act as a medium for political comment and activism (for instance, Richard Bell’s 1992 Ministry Kids, Tony Albert’s 2013 series Brothers and Michael Cook’s 2011 series The Mission).

Richard Bell, Images from Ministry Kids, 1992.
Tony Albert, from the series Brothers, 2013.
Michael Cook, from the series The Mission, 2011.

References

Lydon, J. (2010) ‘Return: The photographic archive and technologies of Indigenous memory’, Photographies, 3(2), pp. 173–187.

FMP plan update

Having carried out the groundwork pretty much according to my research plan over the past 12 months (with interesting visual developments and a range of new possibilities and partnerships along the way), it is time to take stock and produce a deliverable plan for the FMP. The theme remains community responses to urban regeneration, and the intention is to involve community members as collaborators in a way that builds on the relationships and local knowledge that has been built up over the past year. What follows does not constitute a fully worked through proposal. It just sketches out current thinking, with a view to getting the groundwork done as soon as possible. The earlier discussions of context, theory and methodology in the CRJ and coursework still hold. The focus for the WIP portfolio for the Surfaces and Strategies module remains open – I hope to be able to submit preliminary work for the project.

What

The project aims to explore the experience of urban regeneration across generations in areas that are going through unprecedented change. The work will involve collaboration with participants in making and editing their own images and then selecting these for the production of composites using channel mixing. I will also make portraits and provide archival images, developer literature and images, planning documents, maps and other material to draw on. As well as images, participants will produce short texts relating their images and their experiences and aspirations. In terms of the distinction between a study and a project made by Chalfen (2011), this tends towards being a project (there is no tightly defined research question, and images and accounts are not being treated as data; see, though, a critical note on this distinction in an earlier post), with participants taking a role similar to the co-investigator role described by Sinha and Back (2014).

Where

I am focusing on the housing regeneration programmes in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. These are amongst the most dramatic and ambitious, and in relation to existing communities and urban landscape potentially most disruptive, in London, and one (Barking Riverside) is the largest development in Europe. My work will focus on Barking Town Centre (dubbed by the leader of the local council as ‘Manhattan on the Thames’; it includes refurbishment of the Gascoigne Estate, which was the focus of my Sustainable Prospects WIP portfolio) and the Thames Ward (which includes Barking Riverside, dubbed ‘Barcelona on the Thames’ by the local council leader, the demolished Victorian Creekmouth Estate and the nearby 1960s Riverview Estate, which featured in my WIP portfolio for Informing Contexts).

How

I will work with six groups of collaborators, leading to four pop-up exhibitions and one consolidated exhibition. The groups span age ranges from 7 to 70+ and cover the two areas of the borough undergoing the most dramatic development.

The groups are:

Barking Riverside (‘Barcelona on the Thames’)

  • New View Arts (7-11)
  • Riverside Campus (11-18)
  • Thames Ward Community Partnership (adult)

Barking Town Centre (‘Manhattan on the Thames’)

  • Greatfields School (11-14)
  • Barking College (16+)
  • Barking and Dagenham Heritage Conservation Group (adult).

In each school and each community setting I will run six workshops (fortnightly) between mid September and mid December, during which we will produce and edit individual and collective images and texts.

Session 1: Providing context and giving overview. Briefing on production of images (more detail on this in a future post). Sharing of additional resources.

Session 2: Sharing, editing and selecting images. Selecting setting for rephotographing (large format for creation of large composites and animations for projection)

Sessions 3 & 4: Re-photography and participant portraits (for processing, scanning and printing).

Session 5: Mixing and re-mixing individual and collective composites.

Session 6: Pop-up exhibition and zine design.

Output

March 2020: Pop-up exhibitions in two schools and two community settings (Greatfields and Riverside, Sue Bramley Centre and Barking Hotel). Lo-fi publication. [Ideas. 1. collection of postcard size prints. 2. small format staple bound booklet. 3. Envelope with leaflets/packets for each participant, folded A4]. Reduce cost by involving participants in folding and collating.

May 2020: Consolidated exhibition, featuring all work from participants and projections (venue to be determined – possibly at Barking and Dagenham College, or Barking Theatre, or Valence House, or one of the settings available through LBBDfilm, for instance decommissioned power station). Possible publication (could design zines in such a way that these could be combined into a consolidated publication – for instance, as leaflets or packages for each participant and for collective work, put together in the slip case or envelope).

Next steps

July 2019. Discuss with Wendy and others at Falmouth. Set up and make arrangements with schools and community groups. Make preliminary arrangements for exhibitions. Experiment further with large format and channel mixing process (including use of low environmental impact processing and silver reclamation).

August 2019. Carry out background research and archival work. Workshop design and resources.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

(re)mixing (Week 2 Reflection)

Not having reliable internet access while traveling in Northern Queensland has been frustrating this week. I have had to withdraw from the webinar and have not been able to participate in the guest presentations, so feedback on the development of my project has been limited. I have, though, been able to follow up the exchange of messages with Ricard Martinez, and think about how I could incorporate something of his approach into my project (for instance, the use of community walks around an area). I have also been able to reflect on the ethical dimensions of the ‘Joywar’ exchanges, which has helped me to think through the ethical issues that might be raised by my study, and consider how I might address these.

Ricard Martinez, Pont Vell, Lleida, mayo, 2016.

The exchange with Ricard made me aware of the (re)mixing dimensions of my own work, and the manner in which I can bring together archival images (which I have started to do with the erase series) and other visual forms (for instance, maps and data visualizations). I can also incorporate images produced by others (for instance, developer images, as I have through photographs of hoardings in Barking) into my work. This is certainly a form of mixing, and the variations on this by adjusting filters (and the combination of these images in the animations produced) could constitute various re-mixes. There is also a degree of remixing (as a form of transformation) going on as I move from analogue to digital (and back again). In thinking about the display, whilst Ricard did not have experience of projection, he reminded me of Shimon Attee’s projection work in Berlin.

Shimon Attee, Linienstrasse 137: Slide projection of police raid on former Jewish residents, 1920, Berlin, 1992, color photograph and on-location installation

The effect of projecting archival images on buildings is similar in some ways to the mixing of archival with contemporary images in my erase series.

Andrew Brown, erase #1, 2019.

I could explore the possibility of projection work at the decommissioned powerstation at Barking Riverside, or another of the locations offered by filmlbbd.

The B-Building: a former power station dating back to 1939 and decommissioned in 1976 .

Reading around art methodology has helped me to resolve differences between my own (social science inflected) view of methodology, and the manner in which this term is used in relation to photographic practice. Both entail the achievement of a consistency of approach which is based on a set of explicit principles and informed by theory and practice within the field of work. They also require careful consideration of the appropriateness of methods used, and the opportunities and limitations placed on practice by the context and focus of the project or study. Just how explicitly this is stated in the outcomes of a project clearly varies between artistic practice and social research (artists’ statements give a sense of orientation and position in the field, whereas accounts of the outcomes of social research would require more detailed explication of the relationship between theory, methodology, design, methods and analysis). In the development of my FMP, I now have to move from a general methodological position, which has emerged alongside the development of my photographic practice over the previous modules, to reassess my project proposal and produce a project design which is achievable in the time available.

‘Joywar’ and ethical practice

Like Len and some others in the group, photography is not a primary economic activity for me, so I am happy to see my work used, even for the commercial benefit of others, with a strong preference for some form of attribution. I would, though, be very unhappy to see my work used to deceive or misinform (this was discussed in detail in Positions and Practice, so no need to reprise that here).

In contributing to the ‘Joywar’ debate I want to pick up on a statement made by Meiselas to justify her initial (legally aggressive) action against Garnett. Meiselas (Garnett and Meiselas, 2007) states that:

‘No one can “control” art, of course, but it is important to me – in fact, it is central to my work – that I do what I can to respect the individuality of the people I photograph, all of whom exist in specific times and places’ (p.56).

She subsequently reinforces this by asserting that:

‘We owe this debt of specificity [of context] not just to one another but to our subjects, with whom we have an implicit contract’ (p.58).

I want to question the extent to which the terms of this implicit contract can ever be met, and therefore, whether it is sustainable for Meiselas, or any other journalist/artist, to make this integral to their practice. If we cannot control, as Meiselas recognises, what others do with the images we make, it would appear that we are very limited in the extent to which we can honour this contract, or, indeed, protect ‘subjects’ (perhaps, more respectfully, participants) from any potential harm that might come to them in the circulation of their image, either in its initial, repurposed or remixed form. This is increasingly problematic with the deployment of AI enhanced facial recognition systems. In gaining the confidence of participants in photographic work, it is increasingly important, then, to make them aware of the potential consequences of participation, and the measures that are being taken by the photographer to reduce the risk of harm. In the case of ‘Molotov Man’, it would appear that minimal effort has been made to manage this risk, and unlikely that this would have been raised with Pablo Arauz at the time (or subsequently). Whilst Meiselas might aspire to show respect for the participant in this way, the implicit contract seems unrealizable and disingenuous. Maybe better to (explicitly) acknowledge, and make clear to participants, that being photographed (particularly by a well-known and high profile photographer) brings risks, and amongst these is the risk that someone might appropriate and/or recontextualize the image and use it for a totally different purpose. This, of course, would make certain forms of photographic practice untenable (a debate for another day). Graham Smith, whose photographs of his own working class community in Middlesborough were the result of a close relationship and trust between him and members of the community, stopped taking photographs after some of his images were used by The Daily Telegraph to denigrate and disparage working class communities (he became an art picture framer – an archive of his photographs, however, with his own hand written notes on the back, is held by the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, and well worth looking at).

Graham Smith, Who She Wanted and What She Got, South Bank, Middlesbrough, 1982

The photograph objectifies its subject (whatever the expressed intention of the photographer), and the resulting (decontextualized, portable and transmissible) image is commodified, circulated, traded and reconfigured. Institutions, communities and individuals take various ethical positions and make ethically informed decisions in relation to this process, which shapes what is and is not possible and thus shapes their practice. In Meiselas’s case, there is a disjunction between her positioning and her practice (in relation to what is possible: her commitment to the communities is clear and admirable).

In academic social research, expectations regarding ethical practice are distinctly different (a function of the institutionalization of research), not least in being more explicitly expressed and enforced, and somewhat more demanding than expressions of ‘respect’ and ‘implicit contracts’. To gain formal ethical approval, a research proposal would have to elucidate the ways in which risk of harm to participants is minimized. In most cases, this would involve gaining the informed consent of participants and the anonymization of participants in the recording of data and reporting of outcomes. This is clearly problematic in photographic work. Fitzgibbon and Stengel (2018), for instance, in their paper on a study of female drug users and sex workers, which uses a Photovoice style method involving discussion of photographs made by participants, uses pseudonyms and features only photographs where individuals cannot be recognized.

Figure 2. ‘Don’t inject dope, because you’ll be taken by the police’. Figure taken by Chicks Day employee Bora. From Fitzgibbon and Stengel (2018).

This almost automatic demand for anonymity of participants is questioned, for instance Sinha and Back (2014) raise the issue of truly collaborative research where, ethically, participants would be seen as co-creators of knowledge, and, arguably, should be recognized as co-authors in publication, and therefore identified (but in full knowledge of the potential risks, and gains, of identification). However, the approval of participants to be recognized and identified is not enough. They may not be aware of the potential for harm, and therefore any consents has to be informed (which entails making them fully aware of the consequences, which includes the ‘remixing’ and re-contextualization of their image).

My question here is whether, given the increasing use of images as data, AI enhanced capability to recognize people and link data, and the ubiquity of remixing of images, we should now question, or at least modify, Chalfen’s (2011) distinction between projects and studies. Whilst the rigour and explicitness in collection and analysis of data (whatever form that takes) demanded by the academic study may not hold for the project, the potential risks to the participants are similar, and need to be managed, ethically and practically, which, in turn, will transform what we can and cannot do in the creation and circulation of images.

References

Chalfen, R. 2011. ‘Differentiating Practices of Participatory Visual Media Production’, in Margolis, E. and Pauwels, L. (eds) The SAGE handbook of visual research methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, pp. 186–200.

Fitzgibbon, W. and Stengel, C. M. 2018. ‘Women’s voices made visible: Photovoice in visual criminology’, Punishment and Society, 20(4), pp. 411–431.

Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2007. On the Rights of Molotov Man: Appropriation and the art of context. Harper’s Magazine, February 2007: 53-58.

Sinha, S. and Back, L. 2014 ‘Making methods sociable: Dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’, Qualitative Research, 14(4), pp. 473–487.

Methodology (Week 1 Reflection)

I am taking methodology to mean, in this context, the general approach taken to my work. This is influenced by how I, conceptually, think about the contexts I am exploring (theory) and how I conceive of and position my practice (field). In turn, methodology influences the design of particular projects (in the light of the contexts and purposes of the project) and the selection of particular methods. In this sense, methodology sits between (and thus shapes and is shaped by) theory and practice. In my current work, I am exploring the relationship between time, place and communities as they experience the process of urban regeneration. This involves the exploration of different notions of time/space and the entanglement of human activity and identity with the natural and the built environment. Whilst other work exploring similar contexts has focused on either the lived experiences of residents or the nature of the changes taking place in the built environment, I am focusing on the dynamic relationship between these. I am not attempting to ‘tell the stories’ of others (either the residents or the developers), but rather to counterpose constructed histories with codified presents and imagined futures. I attempt to create an array of alternative narratives, and offer the viewer the opportunity to explore relationships between these.

In order to do this, my approach is to collect and organise archival images, planning documents, maps and data to be juxtaposed with my own images of and from within communities and the places they inhabit. These juxtapositions produce fictions that are intended to engage viewers and provoke questions about our humanistic aspirations (including aspirations for equity, prosperity and social justice) and our place in the natural world (as it has been and how it might be), for instance, through the ways that we inscribe and are inscribed by the objects and environment around us. Methodologically, my work is constructive (it is making not finding meaning), relational (it emphasises the contextual and interactional character of meaning) and heuristic (it is a tool for making meaning, not a form of representation). 

This week I presented a selection of images from my WIP portfolio in a webinar and also exchanged ideas with Ricard Martinez, who presented his work as a guest speaker. The feedback confirmed to me that there is potential in the channel mixing work, but that the aim of this work, in exploring the interactions between organic material, everyday activity and emerging futures, needs to be clear. There are clear resonances between my own work and Ricard’s, though our approaches, and resulting images, are very different. I am taken by the way in which he leads tours through the areas he is exploring and works with participants in making their own images. I would like to try something similar around Barking Riverside, Thamesview, Creekmouth and other areas undergoing change, focussing on the built environment, the social and cultural environment and the natural environment (and the interaction between these). The Bow Centre or Gascogne Estate might also be good for trying out this approach. Responses at the webinar were also positive, but the desire to ‘tell stories’ was raised, and I need to resist being drawn into production of work which retreads what has already been done in other contexts, and away from the relational nature of the work, which is fundamental to me (and for the theory that informs my practice). Cemre noted that the images conveyed to her a sense of decay. This may be related to the selection of the images. I do not want to present an apocalyptic vision, so I do need to think clearly about how these particular images sit alongside other images and artefacts. I should also revisit the use of colour. The complexity of the images invokes a sense of chaos, and that they are in black and white perhaps reinforces the sense of decay and foreboding. The return to the natural (post-human) that is being explored might involve the decay (or at least, the transformation) of the built environment, but this is not, in any absolute sense, a more general process of decay (though some engagement with the concept of entropy might be necessary here).

The next steps in advancing the project are (i) continue to explore the production of composites, to get a clearer idea of what kinds of images produce what effects; (ii) continue to explore modes of presentation, including projection, light boxes and printing on a range of different materials; (iii) collect documents and archival material for the contexts being explored, including maps, planning documents, developer literature and brochures and photographs (upcoming research workshop with Lewis Bush should help with this); (iv) experiment with the juxtaposition of images, artefacts, sound and text, with the WIP portfolio for this module and the output of the FMP in mind; (v) identify a context for, and plan, possible ‘tour’ type activities (for instance, with the Bow Centre citizen science group).

Sonification

From the beginning of the MA programme, I have been making binaural field recordings with the intention of incorporating a sonic dimension to my visual work. Installations commonly include ambient soundscapes, or videos with soundtracks. Lewis Bush incorporated sound into his book Shadows of the State (2018) by including barcodes linked to soundfiles. In my Roding Valley Park work, I put soundfiles alongside photographs to give a sense of the thundering and constant sound of traffic on the roads that ran overhead. I have struggled, though, in my most recent work, to see how a sonic dimension could meaningfully be incorporated.

Brain@WattSpace opening, 6th June 2019

A chance meeting with composer and sound artist Jon Drummond at the opening of the excellent Brain@wattspace exhibition (a collaboration between cognitive scientists and artists) has led me to think differently about this. Jon works in the area of ‘sonification’, which involves representing data in sound. Heyler and Drummond have recently written about two of their sonification projects:

”Heavy Metal” [which] is focussed upon the real-time analysis and sonification of the chemical elements in a painting via a camera vision system, [and] “Oratorio for a Million Souls” [which] concerns the behaviour and acoustic properties of live bee colonies manifest in the creation of real-time multi-channel sound compositions and associated sound architectures (Heyler and Drummond,2019:1).

For my own project, rather than present the soundscapes or samples from the settings I am exploring, I could (possibly incorporating environmental sounds) translate data relating to the settings into sonic form. This picks up the strand of the work which address the use of data in decision making about planning, the rendering of residents and their lifeworlds as data, and the corresponding movement in my own images between analogue and digital forms. It also fits with my intension to use maps and other form of data visualisation in presenting my work (a post about this will follow shortly). One question would be whether or not to have a real-time component in the data sonification. The sonic dimension of the work could provide a direct link to environmental changes taking place, and/or the projected population/demographic changes projected in the development of the area.

In making a case for this form of environmental data sonification, and articulating it with other forms of ‘eco-aesthetics’ (such as land art, earthworks and nature-based installation work), Heyler and Drummond (2019: 4) cite Cubitt’s (2005: 9) assertion that eco-politics is ‘the single largest unifying political discourse of the early 21st century’ and that art is uniquely placed to explore the complexity and contradictions of this period, including the role played by technology, which can act both as an instrument of domination over nature and of illumination, empowerment and critique.

References

Bush, L. 2018. Shadows of the State. London: Brave Books.

Cubitt, S. 2005. EcoMedia. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Helyer, N. and Drummond, J. 2019. ‘Heavy Metal and the Oratorio for a Million Souls’, EasyChair. Preprint No. 971. Available online at: https://easychair.org/publications/preprint/NDGB.

Janet Laurence: After Nature

Janet Laurence: After Nature, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 1 March – 10 June 2019

Janet Laurence, Heartshock (After Nature), 2008/2019. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/MCA

As usual, I took in a few exhibitions on recent trip to Sydney. It was really fortunate that the visit coincided with this retrospective, plus a major new work, at the MCA. I wasn’t familiar with Laurence‘s work (though I now do remember her installation at Changi Airport in Singapore), but it is clear that there is a substantial overlap with a number of emerging themes in the development of my own work, albeit in a very different context, and with a very different emphasis. Engaging with, and reflecting on, Laurence’s work has enabled me to make a number of bridges and connections between aspects of both my visual and conceptual work. I’ll summarise these here, in relation to the exhibition, and will return to the themes in the development of my work over the coming weeks. In particular, the exhibition, and subsequent reading about Laurence’s work, has enabled me to think more clearly about the form that the outcomes of my final major project might take, and how this relates to my methodology and broader conceptual framework.

Janet Laurence, After Eden, 2012. Installation view, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Video, mesh, acrylic, steel, scientific glass, taxidermy specimens. Photograph: Jamie North

This exhibition includes key works by Laurence, from early pieces using metal plates, minerals, organic substances and photographs mounted on lightboxes (exploring, for instance, the periodic table), through installations from the 2000s featuring plant and animal specimens and ‘wunderkammer’ (box of curiosities) environments, to a contemporary commissioned piece, featuring floor to ceiling ‘veils’ printed with tree images, arranged in three concentric rings through which visitors can walk, and quasi-scientific collections of plant samples and apparatus (a herbarium, an elixir bar and a botanical library). As the curator’s notes state, Laurence explores ‘the interconnection of all living things – animal, plant, mineral – through a multi-disciplinary approach’ using ‘sculpture, installation, photography and video’ (Kent, 2019, online) . As Gibson (2015a) notes, Laurence has a ‘biocentric’ view of the world, and that, through incorporation of live biotic material in her work, she goes beyond just the entanglement of the human and the (other non-human) natural to focus on questions of care and the possibility of repair and reparation.

Janet Laurence, Cellular Gardens (Where Breathing Begins) (detail), 2005. Stainless steel, mild steel, acrylic, blown glass, rainforest plants. Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 2005. Back: Janet Laurence, Selva Veil, 2005. Archive film with ultrachrome pigment inks, aluminium brackets. Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Janet Laurence, 2013.

Gibson and Laurence (2015) explore the relationship between this work and contemporary post-humanist theory (and this is further explored by Gibson, 2015a and 2015b). Focusing on the piece Fugitive (2013) they argue that Laurence entangles the (human) viewer in the natural, making us all complicit in ecological/environmental decline, but, in the light of Barad’s non-dualist ontology, whilst shifting the human from the centre, resists re-assertion of a culture/nature divide. The collection of organic and animal material, and the multi-modal form, subverts scientific objectivity whilst questioning human subjectivity.

Citing Barad (2012) and Harraway (2004), they state that

‘The reason Karen Barad is so helpful in a discussion of Laurence’s artwork, that deals with human ruination of nature and re-performances that might create a new emergent force, is that she warns against simply inverting humanism, in order to avoid anthropocentrism. She warns against blurring boundaries between human and non- human in an effort to equalize ontology. These cautions are also iterated by Donna Haraway’s discussions of leaky distinctions between human, animal and machine. Haraway says, ‘Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture…the boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us. (Haraway, 2004: 10-11)’’ (Palmer & Laurence, 2015: 46-7).

Central to this work is Barad’s idea of ‘intra-action’. As Palmer and Laurence (2015) state

‘The matter is there in the forceful enactment. The reason Barad’s concept of intra-action is so exciting is because her quantum physics expertise develops into an exploratory elaboration of this idea into the realm of phenomenology. In other words, she sees phenomena as quantumly entangled, but this is not individual entities becoming entangled but where intra-acting components are inseparable or indivisible. Perhaps, the entities don’t come together and become entangled, they already were entangled primordially’. (47)

Laurence produces places where crossing-over can take place, where difference can be questioned and entanglement experienced. There is also a sense of slowing down and focusing of attention when presented by the sheer volume, and forms, or artefact, both veiled and brightly illuminated. As Miall (2019) notes, this effect is particularly marked in Laurence’s site specific works,

‘The spatiality of installations, their insistence on embodied contemplation and the way in which they engender a haptic, bodily awareness through overlaying the processes of memory and perception with the work’s materiality, are central to the transformative experience of Laurence’s public projects’. (86)

Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (detail) by Janet Laurence, 2015–16. Photograph: MCA

Engaging with Laurence’s work has influenced my own thinking in a number of ways. It has helped me to think more clearly about the link between post-humanist theory and art, as it relates to the kinds of contexts I am exploring. She highlights the co-dependence of the human and the natural and the reciprocity of care (which in turn, and in intention, undermines the human/natural dualism). Post-humanism is not anti-humanism, and, for me, the challenge, artistically, is to explore the de-centring of the human whilst maintaining an active commitment to equity and social justice. There is no necessary tension between non-anthropocentric view and a ‘good life’, in fact, for the latter to be sustainable the former is a necessity. The experience of Laurence’s work has given me some insight into how I might provide a sense of entwinement of individuals and communities in place, and the alienating nature of contemporary developments. This enriches the insight provided by more sociological analyses of urban development (like Klinenberg’s, 2018, studies of social infrastructure) , and provides a bridge to the neuroscience influenced work of Fitzgerald et al (2018 & 2016), which brings us back, by a different route, to the entanglement of the human and the natural in the ‘neuropolis’.

Janet Laurence, The Green That Was (detail) from the Crimes Against the Landscape series, 2008. Duraclear, polished aluminium, pigment on acrylic, mirror, burnt wood

References

Barad, K. 2012. ‘Nature’s Queer Performativity.’ Kvinder, Køn og forskning/ Women, Gender and Research. No. 1-2: 25-53.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2018. ‘Living Well in the Neuropolis’, The Sociological Review, 64: 221–237.

Fitzgerald, D., Rose, N. and Singh, I. 2016. ‘Revitalizing sociology: Urban life and mental illness between history and the present’, British Journal of Sociology, 67(1): 138–160.

Gibson, P. and Laurence, J. 2015 ‘Janet Laurence: Aesthetics of Care’, Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, (31): 39–52.

Gibson, P. 2015a. ‘Plant thinking as geo-philosophy’, Transformations: Journal of Media & Culture, (26): 1–9. Available at: http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/26/02.shtml.

Gibson, P. 2015b. Janet Laurence: The Pharmacy of Plants. Sydney: NewSouth Books.

Haraway, D. 2004. The Haraway Reader. New York, Routledge.

Kent, R. 2019. After Nature: Janet Laurence. Online at https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/exhibitions/829-janet-laurence/ [accessed 02.01.19].

Klinenberg, E. 2018. Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society. London: Bodley Head.

Miall, N. 2019 ‘The Constant Gardener: On Janet Laurence’s Site-Specific Works’, in Kent, R. (ed.) Janet Laurence: After Nature. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia: 83–95.