What can we learn from a student’s experience of designed, contingent and improvised online teaching, and how might this inform our post/perpetual pandemic practice?
Fortunate to be a guest at the EPS Learning Lunch to share my experiences as a learner over the past three years, assembling formal and informal learning experiences in photography and fine art. Reflection on the pedagogic structure, relationship between and student experience of the components, which taken together correspond to progression from undergraduate to postgraduate taught to postgraduate research levels (see links below), spanning the contingencies of pandemic management measures, provided an opportunity to think again about the relationship between different forms of educational provision and learner trajectories. This raises issues of learner agency and responsibility, the strategies and tactics used by learners and the meaningful assemblage of educational experience at a time in which knowledge is increasing seen as a commodity and education framed in terms of providers and consumers. Some resonance here with Stephen Wright’s (2014) exploration of the ‘useological turn’ in the arts, and a shift from spectatorship to usership. Discussion invoked the issues and approaches explored by the Vauxhall Manor School Talk Workshop Group (1974-79).
Three years ago, I left the Institute, rewound thirty years to a fork in the road and took the other path. Since then I’ve combined posts in London, New South Wales and Singapore with education and practice as a photographer and artist. This has included the combination of online and face to face non-accredited courses and awards, an online MA at Falmouth University and a Professional Doctorate in Fine Art at UEL, my local university. At this learning lunch I want to reflect on what I have learnt, as an educator, from the experience of being a student in a range of contexts, and consider the manner in which universities have responded to pandemic related restrictions.
Through an initial 20 minute presentation and subsequent discussion I will consider the pedagogic structure of each of these forms of educational experiences from a student’s perspective and hope to draw on the experience of participants to consider at least some of a the following questions:
where does responsibility for learning lie, and how do we align expectations?
who is accountable for learning and how?
what is the relationship between informal student-led support networks and formal provision?
if the formal taught component of a programme is the visible tip of the learning iceberg, what lies beneath the surface?
to what extent can student groups be considered a community?
how can higher education programmes appropriately recognise and accommodate the skills, knowledge and experience of learners?
what is the role of ‘usership’, bricolage and improvisation in the development of an educational programme and a learning trajectory?
what can we learn from student experiences of specifically designed online programmes for the contingent development of online provision?
what can we learn from student experiences of the contingent development of online provision for the design of online programmes?
is higher learning in the throes of deinstitutionalisation?
am I as atypical a student as I might at first seem?
Reflecting on issues discussed at the Learning Lunch, I thought it might be useful to map out how working/learning plays out by tracking activity over the following day. The working bit comprised of answering and following up on work-related emails (jobs in UK, Holland, Singapore, Australia), online meetings about governance issues at an FE college, preparation for upcoming meetings, reading a book manuscript and producing test prints for a forthcoming exhibition. Not sure whether updating supervision notes on the UEL PhD Manager system counts as work or learning, but I did that, too.
The distinct learning events were as follows (before work, at lunchtime and after work in this case, but they could as easily have been woven into the working day).
8.45-9.30: Curator-led online tour of the Sunil Gupta retrospective and Evgenia Arbugaeva exhibition at The Photographers Gallery. Pandemic measures have meant that the exhibitions were hung but not open to the public. The exhibition schedule entails that they will now, all being well, only be open to the public for two weeks. The online participants were patrons of The Photographers Gallery, so this was essentially an online substitute for a curator-led private view. I’m familiar with the work of both artists, so the interest here was principally in how the work is presented in the gallery setting and the process by which curators and artists work together. As Gupta’s exhibition is a retrospective, there are decisions to be made about which bodies of work to include, how to distinguish between them and how to relate them to each other. The sequencing of the work, the flow through the gallery and the tight correspondence of the work to phases in Gupta’s life give the exhibition coherence, despite the marked differences in the form taken by each successive project (and the idea of a project frequently being developed post-hoc).
In contrast, Arbugaeva’s exhibition presents a single project, and thus places an emphasis upon creating an environment/atmosphere which enhances the viewers’ engagement with the work. Apart from a graphic map of the area in which the images were made and a short introductory text, the work is visual, and brought together as a coherent whole though gallery layout, colour, lighting and other aspects of design, invoking the dark Russian arctic winter.
13.00-13.30: Online presentation by photographic artist Rut Blees Luxemburg about public engagement in art using her own work as examples of different modes of engagement. This was part of a programme of activities for undergraduate architecture, art and design students at UEL, and the audience was a mixture of students in a workshop on campus and people who had logged in from outside.
This is work that I know very well, so the interest here is in the particular modes of public engagement, from the printing of images on large concrete panels for the Silver Forest project in Westminster to holding events and seminars (involving, among others, Jean-Luc Nancy) to launch the London Dust exhibition at the Museum of London. Particularly interesting was the opening of Luxemburg’s own artspace Filet in Shoreditch, which she uses as a way of engaging the public with the work of young and emerging artists. The message here is make sure that these community events and opportunities for active engagement are built in to the project, to create dialogue and discourse around the work.
I’d intended to go to the session by film maker Alison Winter but my preceding online meeting over-ran.
17.00-18.00: Points Run: A One Act Play, Written and Performed by Sheridan Humphreys. This was a public online event run by the Menzies Australia Institute at KCL, where Humphreys holds a postgraduate research scholarship. The participants were mostly in the UK and Australia. Humphreys, who is both a PhD student and a lecturer in Screenwriting at Greenwich and Royal Holloway, explored the use of fiction and performance as modes of investigation and representation in research.
The initial performance acted to provoke discussion both about the substantive focus of the piece (domestic violence and domination) and the use of fiction and speculative forms as a means of investigation/research in the humanities. This resonated strongly with O’Sullivan’s (2017) exploration of fiction as method, developed from an engagement with the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle (2013). The influence of Sara Ahmed‘s work on Humphreys’ approach also resonates with the work I’m doing with the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, and Ahmed’s (2019) exploration of ‘use’, particularly in relation to educational institutions and practices, has direct relevance to the bringing together of my own background as an educator and the development of my current artistic practice.
18.30-19.15: Listened to the Free Thinking episode on Epistemic Injustice while in the bath. Miranda Fricker’s (2007) notions of testimonial and hermeneutical injustice bring us back around to the discussion of student voice and agency in education institutional settings at the Learning Lunch (as does Ahmed’s forthcoming Complaint!), and Basil Bernstein’s question of whose knowledge is valued and transmitted through formal education and, in relation to assessment ‘whose ruler, in whose interests or for what consciousness, desire and identity?’ (in conversation with Joseph Solomon, 1999).
Actually not an atypical day in terms of the range of engagements and diversity of activities. Taking time to make the links between these experiences is a challenge. Writing this has taken longer than it should. It occurs to me that it would not be possible to ‘attend’ such a range of presentations in a day of face to face activity, raising again the question about what we can learn about modes of higher learning from our pandemic pedagogic improvisation, and the need to stop seeing this a pathological episode to be set aside in the return to ‘normality’. There is also a lot here, prompted by relating this art/photographic life/education to my experience as an educator and sociologist, that contributes to an understanding of plurality in practice and in producing a productive dialogue between domains of practice. Brewing alongside this is consideration of Tim Ingold’s (2021) Correspondences and John Newling’s (2020) Dear Nature, which start to draw together other loose but approximal ends, but that’s for another post.
Ahmed, S. (forthcoming). Complaint! Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the Use?On the uses of use. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bernstein, B. & Solomon, J. (1999). “Pedagogy, identity and the construction of a theory of symbolic control”: Basil Bernstein questioned by Joseph Solomon. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), 265–279.
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ingold, T. (2021). Correspondences. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Laruelle, F. (2013). Principles of Non-Philosophy, trans. Nicola Rubczak and Anthony Paul Smith. London: Bloomsbury.
Newling, J. (2020). Dear Nature,. Nottingham: Beam Editions.
O’Sullivan, S. (2017). ‘Non-philosophy and art practice (or fiction as method)’. In J.K. Shaw and T. Reeves-Evison (eds) Fiction as Method. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
This practice-based research explores plurality (Lahire, 2011) in contemporary art, through the design and implementation of a series of collaborative multi-disciplinary projects and the dissemination and analysis of the artistic work produced. Artists, like the writers studied by Lahire (2006), commonly lead double or multiple lives, often as a response to economic precariousness. At a time of disruption and transformation of established practice provoked by a succession of global challenges (for instance, the Co-vid19 pandemic, persistent social injustice and accelerating climate crisis), this study explores the creative potential of the ability to move between multiple and diverse contexts and forms of activity, and the benefits of the critical dialogues this facilitates. This includes consideration of the form that multi-disciplinary enquiry and community focussed art might take in a post/perpetual pandemic world.
Addressing complex, pressing and persistent environmental, social, economic and health issues (frequently described as ‘wicked problems’, a term coined in the context of planning policy by Rittel and Webber, 1973) has increasingly required researchers, practitioners and citizens to cross disciplinary and professional boundaries to work collaboratively, drawing critically on diverse forms of theory, knowledge and practice. This extends beyond institutionalised areas of expertise to include community, indigenous and everyday knowledge and practice. Working across disciplines brings a range of ethical, ontological and epistemological perspectives into critical, and potentially productive, dialogue (Maniglier, 2021). Whilst the distinctive contribution made by the arts to multi-disciplinary enquiry has long been acknowledged (see, for instance, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Health and Well-being Research Portfolio), how artists combine and traverse areas of expertise in their own practice, however, appears to have received little attention. Butt (2017), for instance, has noted that there even appears to be an ambivalence amongst professional artists about the relationship between their art practice and academic appointments. Artificial intelligence, and wider cultural uncertainty about professional boundaries and expertise, has led to an erosion of distinct professional identities and the creation of more fluid and hybrid forms of practice (see Susskind and Susskind, 2015). This increased porosity between domains of practice creates opportunities for artists to both work collaboratively across contexts and draw creatively on aspects of their own ‘non-art’ activities, prompting the further development of ‘the plural artist’. Working collaboratively with communities, for instance, leads artists such as Wendy Ewald to assume a pedagogic role (Azoulay, 2016) and to explore the ethical issues that are raised by this form of relationship with participants, whereas artists such as Mark Dion adopt the practices of other disciplines (for instance, archaeology in his 1999 work Tate Thames Dig) in producing art that questions institutionalised knowledge (Ross, 2006). Lahire’s notion of plurality also raises critical questions about the relationship between theory and practice, reinforcing the potential for individuals to inhabit the worlds of both theorist and practitioner, as is evident in the work of, for instance, Janet Laurence (see Gibson and Laurence, 2015).
Through critical reflection on the working processes developed in a series of community focused projects and analysis of the work produced, this practice-based study seeks to explore what it is to be an ‘artist and …’, and how this might contribute to reconfiguring the arts in a post/perpetual pandemic world and to acting and thinking differently about the relationship between the human and the more-than human. The projects themselves will focus on particular locations, activities and communities in east London, and the work produced will combine digital and analogue photography with other media, including field-recordings, video, artefacts, maps, documents and archival research. The reflexive nature of the study will be reflected in the production of a public hyper-textual journal charting the development of the work alongside the production of art works for the viva installation and accompanying report.
As described in earlier posts, I use photography with community and activist groups in a variety of ways, including the use of participant photographs to explore life-worlds, collaborative production of images for advocacy and the production of images as a personal lyrical response to specific urban contexts in flux. The means of presentation of the work and engagement with an audience mirrors the process of production in the creation of multimodal collections around a theme, which are offered to others as a resource for the production of narratives, and the use of non-gallery spaces for pop-up exhibitions and workshops. These exhibitions and workshops are as much a part of the process of producing my work (in that they enable feedback on work presented which in turn influences future iterations of the work and provide opportunities for collaborative practice) as they are outputs (in the dissemination of the outcomes of the projects). In the early stages of each project the primary focus is on building relationships and trust, leading to identification of photographic work that would be of use to the community. The resulting repositories of images form a resource that can be used by the community in press reports, campaigns, promotions, funding applications and so on. For example, I made images of religious artefacts found in clearing the banks of the river for the River Roding Trust, which have been used in making presentations, for instance to the local Interfaith Forum. They now form the basis of an exhibition available to schools and community groups and is being used to advocate for the care of the river and surrounding area (Figures 1 and 2).
Other images made in the area are being used in funding applications, for instance to Transport for London for the creation of a river path and campaigns, for instance by the CPRE London for ten new London parks (Figure 3).
Alongside building these repositories, I am doing archival research with local libraries and museums (delayed due to the furloughing of archive staff), collecting artefacts and making images and field recordings which will form the basis for my own work to be exhibited in the area. This form of exploration through physical immersion in a place and exploration of its materiality, history and inter-connections bears a resemblance to the process of Deep Mapping (Bloom and Sacramento, 2017). At the initial speculative stage in the project, I have produced several series of photographs, in this case exploring the entanglement of the human and the more-than human in this particular place, for example the Home series (Figure 4) which explores a tragic burnt-out encampment in the bushes by the river and the Carrier series (Figure 5) focusing on plastic waste entwined with the branches of trees between the road and the river.
Other series also involve experimentation with the form of photographic image making, particularly relevant given proximity to the former Ilford Limited photographic materials manufacturing plant, including the Colour Shift series (Figure 6), which involves improvised home processing and the Plant Phenols series (Figure 7) which uses Karel Doing’s (2020) phytogram process with Ilford films and papers and locally foraged materials.
With pandemic management measures currently in place, this work will be exhibited outside (for instance, along the pathway alongside the river and on concrete plinths between the highway and the river). Archive collections, artist books and portable exhibition materials will also be created, and these will be used in workshops (which will also feed material into the collections). Inspiration for this comes from five principal sources. Firstly, collections of facsimiles of historical documents and other images, texts and artefacts that are used for first-hand engagement with materials in developing an understanding of historical periods and events (for instance, Jackdaws – see Figure 8).
Secondly, the collections of artefacts and images carried by migrant and displaced groups, explored for instance by the Refugee Hosts project (refugeehosts.org). Thirdly, the use of collections and portable exhibitions by artists, such as Marcel Duchamp’s La Boîte-en-Valise (1935-41) and Dayanita Singh’s Museum Bhavan (2017), which consists of box sets of accordion books and prints stored in bespoke cases with portable stands, enabling others to construct their own exhibitions from her work. Fourthly, indigenous forms of pedagogy, such as the use of artefacts and collective sense making in Australian aboriginal communities explored by Simon Munro and colleagues in the Yearning to Yarn project (Munro, 2019). Finally, the juxtaposition of photographic images alongside maps, infographics, illustrations, artefacts and other materials, for instance in Richard Misrach and Kate Orff’s multi-disciplinary Petrochemical America (see Figure 9) and installations and books such as Mark Dorf’s Kin (Dorf, 2018).
As Palmer (2013) has pointed out
‘there is nothing inherently more democratic or progressive about collaborative photography; the photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 were, after all, a product of a group exercise in torture. However, thinking about photography in collaborative terms invites us to reconfigure assumptions about the photographic act in all its stages’. (pp. 122-3)
In writing about her collaboration with photographers Wendy Ewald and Susan Meiselas, Ariella Azoulay (2016) cautions that collaboration can, indeed, become ‘a weapon in the hands of an oppressive regime’ (p.188). For Azoulay, collaboration is inherent in all photography, regardless of the intentions of the photographer, as there is always some form of encounter in the act of making a photograph. This alerts me to pay attention to the form of encounter, and questions of authorship, ownership, knowledge and rights, and more broadly the ethical issues that these encounters raise for all forms of artistic practice. The ethical issues raised by collaborative work have been explored in detail by others working in this way, for instance Anthony Luvera (see, for instance, Ewald and Luvera, 2013, and Luvera, 2008) and Gemma Turnball (2015). Whilst I am not engaged with the kind of social documentary and representational form of collaborative photography described by Turnball, it is important to learn from and attend to the issues that this work raises regarding authorship, agency, expectations and form of relationship with participants. These are equally important in understanding the shift to usership (Wright, 2014) and what this means for plurality in artistic practice (Lahire, 2011) more generally.
This reflexive exploration of plurality in art practice through production of and reflection on my own work requires the creation of a range of multi- and trans-disciplinary projects over the course of the doctorate. To this end, I am building on existing links and networks to explore opportunities for collaborative work with researchers at UEL and UCL, with London Prosperity Board members and with community groups in Newham, Redbridge and Barking in Dagenham, and around the Olympic Park.
Azoulay, A. (2016) ‘Photography consists of collaboration: Susan Meiselas, Wendy Ewald, and Ariella Azoulay’, Camera Obscura, 31(1), pp. 187–201.
Whilst the roots of my practice lie in photography, over the past two years my work has increasingly become multimodal (Kress, 2009), combining and juxtaposing photographic images with text, soundscapes, maps, documents and artefacts. In this work photography is seen not as a singular practice, but as a diverse set of social, cultural, aesthetic and technical practices, shaped by context and involving a range of both analogue and digital means for the production, processing and distribution of images. My current work focuses on the relationship between human activity and the natural and built environment in urban contexts in flux. This exploration overlaps with and is enriched by engagement with other artists working in different media and with practitioners and researchers working in other fields and disciplines on related issues and questions. I create the context for this work by working collaboratively with community and activist groups in a succession of projects focused on a particular place or set of issues.
My practice as an artist has developed alongside professional work as a sociologist and educator. I have until recently seen these as separate but related domains of practice, to the extent of avoiding overtly sociological and educational themes in my artistic work. This has created a space in which my artistic practice can grow and now opens up the prospect of the development of a constructive interaction and dialogue between my activity and expertise as an artist, sociologist and educator. The increasing involvement of artists in multi-disciplinary activity and enquiry has led me to consider: (i) what distinctively can the arts bring to multi-disciplinary projects and (ii) what are the implications of individual practitioners working in two or more domains? The latter question relates to what sociologist Bernard Lahire (2011) has referred to as ‘plurality’. Lahire (2006) has studied contemporary writers, many of whom combined writing with other professional work, constituting a frequently hidden ‘double life’. Rather than see this other profession as an unwelcome but necessary distraction from writing, as Richman (2010) notes, it can be energising and animating, and illustrates how we develop a plurality of values, dispositions, skills and relations in order to inhabit multiple social worlds. Through the work produced in the course of each project I aim to explore this constructive entanglement of art and non-art, alongside the messy entanglements that the work itself addresses and from which it arises.
Beyond this, the substantive focus, or content, of the bodies of work produced will depend on the context within which each project is carried out. In the first year of the programme, the context will be a residency with the River Roding Trust. The work will focus on exploration of a slice of untended urban edgeland (a term coined by environmentalist Marion Shoard; see Farley & Roberts, 2011, p.5) that lies between a major road and the river as it passes through a formerly industrial area of east London. The roads that run alongside, the railway lines that cut across, the power cables which rise above and the wastewater which flows below act to contain and define the space in relation to human activity and permeate it with the constant roar of traffic and petrochemically derived air, ground and water pollution. These infrastructural technologies transport people and commodities though the area and provide no services to the place itself. From a posthumanist, non-anthropomorphic perspective, this place is, however, more than the mere product of human carelessness and exploitation. The entwined component parts precede, and will likely exceed, human presence, and at the intersection between green and grey ecologies (Wolfe, Jafari and Gomez-Luque, M. 2018) the place provides opportunities for exploration of human and more-than human entanglement in the present and over time. Art in this context actively engages in a dialogue with a range of alternative discourses, including late-capitalist economics and legal regimes relating to access, ownership, ecological sustainability and nonhuman rights. In subsequent years, the various settings of the projects will influence the substantive content of the work. The unifying principle across the projects is a concern for multi-disciplinary enquiry and plurality.
Farley, P. & Roberts, M. S. (2011) Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. London: Jonathan Cape.
Kress, G. (2009) Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.
Lahire, B. (2011), The Plural Actor, Cambridge: Polity.
Lahire, B. (2006) La condition littéraire: la double vie des écrivains, Paris: La Découverte.
Richman, M. (2010) ‘Bernard Lahire and “The Double Life of Writers”‘, New Literary History 41 (2), pp. 439-441.
Wolfe, C., Jafari, G. and Gomez-Luque, M. (2018) ‘Critical Ecologies of Posthumanism’, New Geographies 09: Posthuman, pp. 177-184.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
In Towards a PromisedLand (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.
As with earlier work (such as InPeace 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).
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).
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)
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.