My interest in the production of collections/archives stems from my desire to avoid the creation of strongly framed narratives in favour of potentially more open texts, which provide opportunities and resources for the audience/user to develop their own narratives and understandings from engagement with the work.

Figure 1: Mark Dion, An Archaeology of Knowledge, permanent installation at the Brody Learning Commons, the Sheridan Libraries & University Museums, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 2011.

In a presentation at the Nasher Sculpture Centre, Dion (2013) describes the primary focus of his work as being ‘the history of natural history and the representation of the natural world’, and consequently many of his projects have been in collaboration with institutions that share this interest, such as museums, zoos and botanical gardens. In the same presentation he specifically frames his core question as ‘How is it that certain things get to be called nature at any particular time by a particular group of people?’. As Talasek (2014) observes in discussing Dion’s permanent exhibit at Johns Hopkins University (Figure 1), this resonates strongly with the central concerns of poststructuralist epistemology and particularly approaches to knowledge influenced by the work of Michel Foucault (see, for instance, Foucault, 1966; 1969).

Dion exemplifies the manner in which such questions can be approached through art practice. My particular interest in Dion’s work here is the way in which he succeeds, in the installations that result from his work, in creating a relatively open text. My first encounter with his work, and a project that relates most closely to my current work around the River Roding in east London, was Tate Thames Dig (1999). The work, which was commissioned for the opening of the Tate Modern, was created through three distinct phases of activity: the dig, the cleaning and classification of artefacts, and their formal presentation. The dig involved 25 volunteers from the areas around the Tate galleries in London in collecting objects (whatever took their interest) from the banks of the Thames in the Bankside and Millbank areas. These objects were then publicly cleaned and classified by the volunteers (Figure 2), according to a typology based on formal resemblance (for instance, according to material).

Figure 2: Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig. Dion, Simon Upton, and volunteers at the Tate Museum, working with bones, 1999. Photograph courtesy of Mark Dion.

Finally, the artefacts were displayed in the gallery in a large cabinet (Figure 3), without any text or labeling. Visitors were able to open the drawers of the cabinet and explore the contents. Other items were displayed alongside the cabinet, including some of the tools used and texts on archaeology and critical theory, portraits of participants and a video documenting the dig and cleaning/classification process with testimonies from Dion and volunteers.

Figure 3: Mark Dion, Installation shot, Tate Thames Dig. Tate Modern, London, 1999.

The volunteers were either over 65 or under 17. According to Blazwick (2001) ‘working with seniors Dion discovered amateur historians and botanists while the diverse group of disenfranchised kids produced budding archaeologists and poets’ (p.108). The process builds on Dion’s own research into archaeological method, including the seeking of permissions for the dig, and reference to prior work by social historians, thus offering a form of aesthetic practice that lies alongside and supplements the institutional and formal aspirations of production of archaeological knowledge.

Claims have been made for the democratic nature of the process and the way mundane objects are given value in the gallery setting. Bourriaud (2002), for example, presents Dion’s work as an exemplification of a democratising ‘relational aesthetics’, that is art that is produced using procedures drawn from other disciplines, and thus bringing to the fore the relational basis of disciplinary knowledge. Ross (2006), however, points out that throughout the process Dion is clearly in charge and that ultimately aesthetic concerns take precedence over all others. This aspect of Ross’s critique bears resemblance to Bishop’s (2012) criticism of participatory art more generally as merely creating a context for the artist’s creation of aesthetic objects (a critique which specifically targets Ewald’s work amongst others). Ross also observes that the approach taken in Dion’s archaeological projects is not interdisciplinary, in the sense of disciplines working together on a shared project from distinct disciplinary perspectives. Rather art and archaeology operate in parallel with each other, and through the mimicry of scientific processes Dion makes alternative epistemological claims. As Ross states:

‘One of the surprises of Dion’s body of work is that it suggests that art may just as well involve epistemological research and study as the human or natural sciences’ (p.179).

The particular interest for me is the way the material collected is presented to viewers/users who are able to produce their own narratives and accounts from the material. In other projects, such as The Library for the Birds of New York/The Library for the Birds of Massachusetts (2016/7: see Figure 4) and Rescue Archaeology (2005), Dion extends the scope and form of the material presented (including artefacts made specifically for the installation, books, plant material, bugs and living birds) and enlarges the performative aspects of the work and opportunities for viewers to actively engage in the production of new knowledge.

Figure 4: Mark Dion, Installation shot, The Library for the Birds of New York, 2016.

The work acts to engage and provoke, rather than (merely) represent or present a narrative. Like Laurence, Dion brings nature inside the gallery in challenging and engaging ways, in a form of ‘geoaesthetics’ (Cheetham, 2018, p.123) which explores the intersection of speculations from a range of disciplines on the relationship between the human and the more-than human with art practices. As Marsh (2009) observes Dion ‘has created an expansive body of work that investigates how cultural institutions shape our understanding of the natural and built environments through the classification and display of artifacts’ (p.33).


Bishop, C. (2012) ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’ in Bishop, C. (ed.) Artificial hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London: Verso, pp. 11–40.

Blazwick, I. (2001). Mark Dion’s “Tate Thames Dig.” 24(2), pp. 105–112.

Bourriaud, N. (2002) Relational Aesthetics (trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods), Paris: Les Presses du Reel.

Cheetham, M. A. (2020) Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the 60s, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press.

Dion, M. (2013) ‘Contemporary Cabinets of Curiosity: Artist Mark Dion’. Presentation at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. 27th January 2013. Online at [accessed 10.11.20]

Foucault, M. (1966) The Order of Things: An archaeology of the human sciences. Translated from French. London: Tavistock, 1970.

Foucault, M. (1969) The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge, 2002.

Marsh, J. (2009) ‘Fieldwork : A Conversation with Mark Dion’, American Art, 23(2), pp. 32–53.

Ross, T. (2006) ‘Aesthetic autonomy and interdisciplinarity: A response to Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics”’, Journal of Visual Art Practice, 5(3), pp. 167–181.

Talasek, J. D. (2014) ‘Mark Dion: An Archaeology of Knowledge’, Issues in Science and Technology, 31(1), pp. 7–13.


In her review of contemporary photography and the environment, curator, writer and art historian Kim Knoppers (2020) draws predominantly on what she calls photography plus or extended photography. Her reasons are, firstly, that she is committed to multi-and inter-disciplinary work in which the medium is correlated with the topic being addressed, and, secondly, that she feels that photography might not be ‘fully equipped’ for exploring the environment and, in particular, ecological crisis. The limitations of photography lie in part in its historic implication, as a representational technology, in the separation of humans from the environment as spectacle, for instance in the epic landscape photographs of Ansel Adams. It is no longer tenable, she argues, to aspire to change behaviour in relation to the climate crisis through the use of ‘a few beautiful photographs’. She recounts the difficulty she has had in finding compelling images that deal with the effects of human activity on the environment and adequately invoke the habitually hidden interplay of science, power, politics, law, economics and technology. The danger is that, she argues, seeing images that we feel we have seen before, no matter how captivating, will fail to provoke new ways of thinking about the place of the human in the world and prompt urgently needed action. To address the complexity of overturning long held assumptions about human-centred progress and form a closer connection with the earth and more-than human entities, contemporary photographic artists have to seek new ways of conveying non-human centred narratives and thus incorporate other modes of artistic production into their work. Examples of artists who juxtapose photographic images with other media in this way include Mark Dorf, whose work incorporates artefacts, text, video and music (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Mark Dorf, Landscape 14, 2017, UV print on dibond, birch plywood, tempered glass, faux rock, fluorescent light, faux grass, house plant, resin, bark bottled water.

This work also commonly involves collaboration across disciplines. The work of Australian artist Janet Laurence exemplifies, and amplifies, this embrace of interdisciplinarity and multimodality. Laurence not only exemplifies working across disciplines, but also actively engages with contemporary theory in the social sciences and humanities. Through her own writing and joint authorship of academic papers she makes a distinctive contribution to the understanding of plant life and its relation to human activity (see, for instance, Gibson, 2015b).

Figure 2: Janet Laurence, Heartshock (After Nature), 2008/2019. Photograph: Jacquie Manning/MCA

My first knowing encounter with Janet Laurence’s work was the exhibition After Nature, a retrospective, plus a major new work, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (1st March to 10th June 2019: Figures 2 and 3).  I subsequently recalled that I had seen her installation at Changi Airport in Singapore (The Memory of Lived Spaces, T2 Changi Airport, Singapore, 2008). It was 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 different emphasis. Engaging with, and reflecting on, Laurence’s work has enabled me to make a number of connections between aspects of my artistic work and conceptual approach. In particular, the exhibition, and subsequent research into Laurence’s work, has enabled me to think more clearly about multimodality in the arts and the role of the arts in multi- and inter-disciplinary enquiry. It also provokes me to consider how I might present the outcomes of my work, and how this relates to my methodology and broader conceptual framework.

Figure 3: 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

This exhibition included 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). 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.

Figure 4: Janet Laurence, Fugitive, TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2013, site specific installation, photograph on acrylic, mirror, laboratory and hand-blown glass, oil glaze, video projection, various animal specimens

Gibson and Laurence (2015) explore the relationship between this work and contemporary posthumanist theory (and this is further explored by Gibson, 2015a and 2015b). Focusing on the piece Fugitive (2013: see Figure 4) they argue that Laurence entangles the (human) viewer in the natural, making us all complicit in ecological/environmental decline, but does so in a way that resists re-assertion of a culture/nature divide. The collection of organic and animal material, and the multi-modal form of the work, challenges both scientific objectivity and human subjectivity. An explicit influence here is Karen Barad’s (2012) non-dualist ontology, which decentres the human subject in a way that avoids simply inverting humanism. Blurring the boundaries between the human and non-human is not sufficient, they argue, invoking Barad’s idea of ‘intra-action’.

‘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’ (Gibson and Laurence, 2015, p.47).

Figure 5: Janet Laurence, Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (detail), 2015–16. Photograph: MCA

In her largely site-specific work, 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 with the sheer volume (Figure 18), and forms, or artefacts, 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.’ (p.86)

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 posthumanist 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). Posthumanism 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 contradiction between non-anthropocentric view and human equity, in fact, for the latter to be sustainable the former is a necessity. Engagement with 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.


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

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

Gibson, P. (2015a) ‘Plant thinking as geo-philosophy’, Transformations: Journal of Media & Culture, (26): 1–9. Online at: [accessed 10.11.20].

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

Kent, R. (2019) After Nature: Janet Laurence. Online at [accessed 10.11.20].

Knoppers, K. (2020) ‘Contemporary Photography and the Environment’, Self Publish, Be Happy Online Masterclass, 22nd October 2020.

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, pp. 83–95.

Usership/learning together

Art theorist Stephen Wright (2014) argues that, over a period of several decades, there has been a what he calls a ‘usological’ turn across all sectors of society. Networked culture, alongside a broader social, cultural and economic turn away from exceptionalism and professional expertise, has placed users in a key role in the production of knowledge, meaning and value which challenges established distinctions between consumption and production. In the arts this move to a more inclusive ‘usership’ has placed the ability of practitioners to offer an array of artistic competences for use in a range of contexts above the aesthetic function of art. In this way, artists offer particular resources and perspectives in collaborative settings. Art in this sense is a distinct form of practice but not exceptional. This perspective resonates with the manner in which my own practice has developed, with an emphasis on creating work together with and alongside others. In developing a lexicon of usership, in which he elaborates emergent concepts and identifies institutions in decline, Wright describes several modes of usership, including hacking, gaming, gleaning, poaching, piggybacking and, central to the direction I am taking in the development of my projects, ‘use it together’ (UIT), a hands-on social and inclusive development of ‘do it yourself’ culture.

The development of an approach to art practice that emphasises collaboration and mutual learning is exemplified by photographer Wendy Ewald, who for over forty years has been working collaboratively with communities, in particular with children, women and families, in using photography in the exploration of their own lives and aspirations. Her work addresses identity and cultural difference and raises fundamental questions about authorship and the power and identity of the artist. Amongst artists adopting a participatory form of practice, Ewald is notable in placing a strong emphasis on learning in her projects and interventions (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Wendy Ewald working with Celeste, Margate, England, 2005. Monochrome photograph by Pete Mauney.


As Azoulay (2016) observes, a concern for the learning process is at the heart of all Ewald’s work and that in many of her projects ‘she teaches photographic literacy while learning what photography can be for those that she teaches’ (p.190). Ewald (2015) gives an illuminating account of how she worked with participants in her This is Where I Live (2010-13) project in Israel and the West Bank (Figure 2), including discussion of the work of other photographers, technical instruction, strategies for selecting what photographs to take and how to discuss images together.

Figure 2: Wendy Ewald working with women elders at the East Jerusalem Ministry of Social Affairs, from This is Where I Live, 2010-13.


In Towards a Promised Land (2003-6) Ewald collaborated with children who had come to Margate, on the Kent coast, either alone or with their families to make a ‘fresh start’. This included children who had migrated to the UK and been resettled in Margate. Many had suffered from the trauma of family upheaval, and those seeking asylum, for instance from the Middle East and Africa, who, facing an uncertain and precarious future, were placed in temporary hotel accommodation in the town. Ewald worked with 20 children, photographing them and their possessions, and teaching them to take photographs and record their stories.

Figure 3: Wendy Ewald, Untitled portraits of Reza. From Towards a Promised Land, 2005, Commissioned and produced by Artangel, Margate, England.


As with earlier work (such as In Peace and Harmony: Carver Portraits, 2005, in Richmond, Virginia), children were asked to write on pictures of their faces and the back of their heads (Figure 3), which were juxtaposed with photographs of everyday objects selected by the children to create 3m by 4m triptychs printed on vinyl and mounted on the cliff faces looking out to sea. Later, following discussion with members of the community, banners made from the work were displayed in prominent public places around the town (Figure 4 and 11).

Figure 4: Installation shot of Towards a Promised Land—Thierry Bal, digital photograph, Margate, 2006.


As Hyde (2005) notes ‘By presenting the work within the public spaces of her collaborators’ lives instead of within the more exclusive halls of a museum or gallery, Ewald expands and diversifies her audience and creates the potential for meaningful public dialogue’ (p.189). The use of public space in this way transforms the urban landscape and the experience of members of the community as they move through it.

It is difficult to judge the impact of this work on the individual participants and the wider community. Some insight is provided by the 2020 edition of Portraits and Dreams for which Ewald returns to the county in Kentucky where she worked with children in the 1970s. The reflections of the participants are captured in a documentary film and book (Ewald, 2020), and a joint exhibition created with one of the participants who subsequently became a wedding photographer (Figure 5). 

Figure 5: Wendy Ewald and Denise Dixon, Installation shot, Portraits and Dreams, Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, 2014.


Katherine Hyde (2005) analyses Ewald’s work from the perspective of visual sociology, illustrating how this form of work can contribute to our understanding of social class, race and gender in the (re)production of social inequality, and the part played by visual culture in these processes. In considering Ewald’s 2005 American Alphabets series (Figure 13), Hyde raises an issue that is central to all forms of art that attempt to develop and convey a narrative, or ‘tell a story’.

As with Ewald’s entire body of work, it is interesting to consider here whether and how the portraits expand our knowledge. Does the White Girls alphabet present a challenge to what we know? Does it perpetuate stereotypes? It is worth reflecting on the cultural assumptions and implications tied up in our immediate, visceral response to these images and words. (p.179)

Figure 6: Wendy Ewald, Victim from White Girls alphabet in American Alphabets, 2005.


Esther Allen (2016), in an interview with Ewald, notes that her work is frequently cited by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians and educators, but rarely, and notably for a fine art photographer, by art historians. Ewald suggests that this is because she attributes the photographs to the participants, challenging dominant practice in the arts. She clearly does, though, consider herself to be primarily a fine art photographer. There is little attention in her work to issues of pedagogy nor to other disciplines. Ewald’s work thus acts as a resource for those working in and across other disciplines but cannot be considered interdisciplinary in itself. Katzew (2003), in a review of Ewald’s (2001) book I Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children raises a number of critical issues about both the selection of communities and ways of working with participants from a sociological and educational perspective, issues that remain implicit in Ewald’s work.


Allen, E. (2016) ‘Wendy Ewald’, Bomb, (135), pp. 113–123.

Azoulay, A. (2016) ‘Photography consists of collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and Ariella Azoulay’, Camera Obscura, 31(1), pp. 187–201.

Ewald, W. (2003-6) Towards a Promised Land. Online at [accessed 10.11.20].

Ewald, W. (2015) ‘This Is Where We Live’, Financial Times, 2 January, pp. 4–7.

Ewald, W. (2020) Portraits and Dreams, Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, updated and expanded edition, London: MACK.

Hyde, K. (2005) ‘Portraits and collaborations: A reflection on the work of Wendy Ewald’, Visual Studies, 20(2), pp. 172–190.

Katzew, A. (2003) ‘I Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children’, Harvard Educational Review, 73(3), pp. 466–475.

Wright, S. (2014) Toward a Lexicon of Usership. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum. Online at [accessed 10.11.20].