Roadmap for Weeks 5 to 11

Title: re.generation

An inter-generational collaborative exploration of community engagement with urban regeneration and responses to local changes in the built and natural environment.

Keywords: urban, regeneration, heritage, environment, community, interdisciplinary, collaborative.

Methods/methodology: collaborative image making to build a collective understanding of individual and community experience of regeneration through visual exploration and expression; participant image making and assisted portraits; collection and analysis of narratives, documents and artefacts.

Preliminary work (Week Five). Workshop with Lewis Bush on investigative techniques, background research on current regeneration projects in Barking and Dagenham, meeting with Barking and Dagenham Heritage Preservation Group (BDHPG), arrangements for image making and anticipated form and presentation of outcomes.

Week 6: Bookbinding workshop 1 at London Centre for Book Arts. Archive work at Valence House (historic images of town centre and riverside areas). Collection of planning documents and developer literature. Image making at Thames Ward Community Project (TWCP) residents summit, and making contacts for subsequent work. Meetings with the headteachers of schools involved to arrange project work in September.

Week 7: Bookbinding workshop 2 at London Centre for Book Arts. Set up participant image making activity with BDHPG. Preliminary portrait work. Printing of work for Arles.

Week 8: Arles meet up and portfolio review. Review of BDHPG participant images and identification of places for rephotographing. Portraits made. Narratives discussed. Response to feedback received.

Week 9: Bookbinding workshop 3 at London Centre for Book Arts. Re- photography done. Composites made and discussed with participants.

Week 10: Selection and printing of images. Design of booklet/archive. Design of exhibition/installation

Week 11: Production of booklet/archive dummy. Production of installation/exhibition material.

Outcomes. Participants images relating to redevelopment of the area, how this relates to their lived experience and how it relates to their aspirations. Assisted portraits of participants. Composites from rephotographs and archive photographs. Accompanying participant narratives, documents and images. Book dummy and installation (or online presentation). Explore possible pop-up exhibition in the Barking Hotel (threatened with demolition in the redevelopment of the town centre).

Relationship with FMP. This will act as preliminary for work my FMP as described in research proposal and updated in my CRJ. The work will be extended by subsequent work in schools and other community groups. The work done in this module will enable my approach to be tested.

Strategies of Freedom (Week 4 Reflection)

It’s been a busy week, with the collaborative zine activity to complete and the 24 hour ‘Hands Off!’ activity. Plus exhibitions in Sydney, 30 hours in the air crossing continents, and guest lectures and webinars. The feedback I have received on my work and plans for the FMP have been reassuring, and I feel confident that I am well prepared for that (as long as I can get all the preliminary work done in the next two weeks, which will be tricky with a book manuscript to deliver, and an introduction to write, in 10 days time). There are also sensitive political issues to address. My major concern is determining the focus for my WIP portfolio for this module, and this will be the focus for my one-to-one tutorial with Cemre on Monday.

Anthony Luvera’s presentation was insightful. Luvera sees his work as a direct descendant of the participatory and critical photography of the Camerawork/Half Moon/Cockpit era (I knew Jo Spence, did my darkroom work at Camerawork and worked for many years with the Director of the Cockpit from that period, so know this work, and its political context and orientation, well). He places equal emphasis on the process of production and the outcomes. His presentation raised interesting issues about the ethics of participatory photography (especially in relation to the regulation of social research, and differences in ethical expectations, for instance in managing risks to the participants), and about authorship (on which he was resolute about the importance of including appropriate attribution to artist in co-authored work, for instance, assisted portraits). Having moved from using photography as an educator, both in classrooms and in the training of teachers, to placing greater emphasis on my own work as a photographer/artist, it was good to be able to position my previous work and my current practice in relation to what Luvera and others are doing. The question of authorship and attribution wasn’t quite resolved for me, and I have to think more about how I attribute work appropriately in the FMP project.

Through his journal ‘Photography for Whom‘ he intends to make visible some of the cultural history of participatory photography; it might be productive to submit a paper which explores the relationship between the fields of photography and education in the development of this work, and the impact of the different forms of institutionalisation of practice, and careers, between these fields. The point he raised about the impersonal nature of the literature and other material available to the providers and recipients of social care, and the inaccessibility of these services, is very important, and his project ‘Frequently Asked Questions‘ is an imaginative, critical and effective way of addressing this.

The zine activity was interesting, and reinforced the importance of clear communication, sense of direction and responsibility in any collaborative project. The resulting zine is successful, in the sense that the images and intent are interesting and consistent, and the final online booklet works well. The activity does, for me, raise questions about the extent to which the spirit of the zine (cheap, lo-fi, accessible, counter-cultural, from and for the community etc) has been lost, or diluted, and the distinction between the zine and the photo-book eroded (again, worth re-visiting Simon Norfolk’s (2019) view of photo-books as indulgent vanity). The final booklet can be found here.

The reflection brief asks for statements about personal practice and methodology, which I think I have addressed elsewhere. In terms of moving my project forward, the next couple of weeks will involve getting approval and making arrangements with key stakeholders, and refining the form the activities will take and working towards achieving the practical competence required (for instance, in the use of the 5×4 in the field, and processing in ecologically low impact ways).

Looking at Luvera’s current working practices has also encouraged me to look at tethering in making assisted portraits. The 24hr activity has opened up two other forms of image that could be used in my FMP (Google satellite images and electronic microscope images). The workshop with Lewis Bush on Saturday should also help me work through what kind of documents and other data I should include in presentation of the FMP (and in the process).

References

Norfolk, S. 2019. Interviewed by Ben Smith. A Small Voice [podcast], 107, 12th June 2019.

AI image production

artificial face

This image of ‘a person who does not exist’ is created by two adversarial AI systems – one creates faces and the other detects flaws (ie. it looks for faces it detects to  be artificial). Working together they refine the collective ability of the system to produce artificial faces. You can see the system in operation here.

Info on how it works is here  and there is an article about the use of these faces in social media here.

The images themselves are produced without direct human intervention. The systems are, however, produced by humans, and the images are created from other images, some of which have been created by humans (and others by capture systems such as CCTV).

Increasingly deep learning AI systems are being trained using images, such as the deep convolutional neural network platform DeepMind, which learns through ‘observation’ of massive collections of images. Humans are, of course, involved in this, not just in the creation of the systems, but also in originating (some) or the images and being the subjects of (some) of the images. As MacKensie and Munster (2019) point out, not only do images we post on platforms such as Facebook feed into these collections, but the image capture chips on the devices we use (such as smart phones) prepare the images we make for this process (of image data extraction).

‘The A11 Bionic released in 2017, iPhone 8’s chip, is optimized for image and video signal processing with a 64-bit and 6-core processor. But it is also optimized to work for machine learning using Apple’s CoreML platform. This ‘platform’ (in a localized sense) enhances image and facial recognition among its raft of AI capabilities, which also include object detection and natural language processing.’ (p.13)

These devices are perhaps more accurately viewed not as cameras, but as image sensors that produce data in a chain of operations in the formation of AI neural networks. It’s not that humans are not involved in the making of images that is changing, but rather how we are involved and what is ultimately created in the process of image/data production when we ‘take a picture’ with these kinds of digital devices.

It was interesting to do this task (seeking ‘non-human’ sources of images) alongside listening to Simon Norfolk’s reflections on the redundancy and poverty of contemporary photographic practice (and education) in his interview with Ben Smith (A Small Voice podcast, 12th June 2019). Both reinforce the need to adopt a relational view of photography, which acknowledges differences between the fields in which photographic images are made, circulated, deployed and consumed, and manner in which what we consider photography to be (and to be able to do) is transformed as we move between contexts and domains of practice. I’ll pick up the issues raised in the Norfolk interview, and relate these to my own project and practice, in a subsequent post.

References

MacKenzie, A. & Munster, A. 2019. Platform Seeing: Image Ensembles and Their Invisualities. Theory, Culture & Society. Advance online publication [https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276419847508]

Norfolk, S. 2019. Interviewed by Ben Smith. A Small Voice [podcast], 107, 12th June 2019.

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.

(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 Attie’s projection work in Berlin.

Shimon Attie, 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.

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.

Planning for the Surfaces & Strategies module

My project involves the exploration of resident engagement with urban regeneration in east London. I have continued to work broadly along the lines set out in my project proposal. The work includes three levels of image making: (i) images made by residents as part of a process of understanding the experiences, lifeworlds and aspirations of individuals and communities; (ii) collaborative image making with community and activist groups for advocacy; (iii) my own artistic response to the changes that are taking place and the ways in which communities are affected by urban regeneration. Over the previous three modules I have developed close working relationships with a number of groups and have focused my work on a particular part of east London (Barking and Dagenham, though I have retained strong links with groups on and around the Olympic Park). I have strengthened the conceptual basis for my work and have developed my visual strategy and methodology in line with this. My current work can be seen here. I have posted regular updates on the development of my project in my CRJ (for instance, here). Most recently, my work has started to address environmental and ecological issues more directly, and I have begun to engage with different conceptions of time (both in response to developments in theoretical physics, and in order to move away from anthropocentric forms of understanding). I have also attempted to bring the work together with other work I have been doing on object oriented learning and indigenous forms of knowledge. I have attempted to assess how the development of my ideas and practice over the previous module relates to the learning objectives for the programme here.

According to the programme description, by the end of the module we should demonstrate: ‘an increased understanding of how complex and sophisticated image-making practices and visual communication strategies can be incorporated into your own practice’. I just want to unpack this a little to map out what I want to achieve over the course of the module, particularly given that this is the last taught component before the FMP.

In my research proposal I identified the following skills for development in this module:

Photo-book production, installation design, printing for exhibition and alternative modes of presentation to different audiences, physically and online.

In relation to the schedule for completion of the project, I earmarked the following actions for this module:

Continuing personal photographic work and collaborative image making. Explore alternative means of presenting images (including books, installations and online galleries). Conduct workshops to prepare community members for Photovoice work. Determine form of personal and collaborative image making, and process of dissemination. Start collection of Photovoice data.

In the light of the ways in which my work has developed over the past year, modifying and expanding the above, this is what I want to achieve over the coming three months:

  • Refine ways of working with participant images and image making. While in Newcastle, I will spend some time working with two projects in the Centre that are using Photovoice (Wang & Burris, 1997) styles of work and arts-based methods of enquiry (with victims of domestic violence and with young offenders in rural areas). Working from the critical work of Sinha & Back (2014), I want to refine the approach to bring it conceptually closer to other strands of my work. Within the module, there are questions about how (if at all) this work is presented to an audience, and ethical issues around working with images made by others for different purposes to be addressed.
  • Incorporate archival images into my work. I have started to do this with the erase series (which incorporates a montage made of archival images of the Creekmouth estate). I need to do some work in the Valence House archives, and also think about how to use the Courtauld archive.
  • Develop the repository of images for advocacy with the Thames Ward Community Project and the Barking and Dagenham Heritage Conservation Group. I want to address the issue of how these relate to other aspects of my work, and the extent to which, for instance, they could together be considered as some kind of archive, and if so, what form might this archive take.
  • Consolidate the conceptual strands from Informing Contexts and focus these on the development of a coherent and informed methodology (with associated strategies and tactics). Lemke’s (2017, 2015) advocacy for a form of relational post-humanism holds some potential in bringing together linguistically inflected post-structuralism with more recent post-humanist and new materialist theory (see, for instance: Barad, 2007 & 2008; Coole & Frost, 2010). Likewise, the engagement by Fitzgerald et al (2018 & 2016) of neuroscience and biology with sociology in understanding contemporary urban life facilitates incorporation of objects and the environment with exploration of the human impact of urban development. The third dimension of this is dialogue with indigenous people’s notions of relationship of the body to the land (and experience of displacement), and running through this the role of objects, materials and making in fostering understanding.
  • Explore the relationship between the digital and the analogue. In the work produced during the last module, I established a resonance between the move from analogue images to digital composites (and animations) and the rendering of residents and communities as data in the shaping of local housing development and planning initiatives. This needs to be further developed both in terms of a visual strategy and conceptually, bearing in mind, for instance, Goriunova’s (2019) notion of the digital subject.
  • Determine the focus for the final major project (from amongst the settings and themes of my work to date) and the form in which the outcomes will be presented.

References

Barad K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Barad K. 2008. Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. In Alaimo S and Hekman S (eds) Material Feminisms. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 120–154.

Coole D. and Frost S. (eds). 2010. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

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.

Goriunova, O. 2019. ‘The Digital Subject: People as Data as Persons’, Theory, Culture and Society. doi: 10.1177/0263276419840409.

Lemke, T. 2017. ‘Materialism without matter: the recurrence of subjectivism in object-oriented ontology’, Distinktion, 18(2): 133–152.

Lemke, T. 2015. ‘New Materialisms: Foucault and the “Government of Things”’, Theory, Culture & Society, 32(4): 3–25.

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

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